Is there such a thing as a routine, pedestrian 3-0 win? If there is, then Saturday’s stroll at the Camp Nou must surely fit the bill. Easy hat-tricks? Lionel Messi bagged a sublime one, and yet the biggest cheer of the night came when Barça’s number 10 hared back into his own half, picked the pocket of Sergio Agüero, and deftly side-stepped Tomas Ujfalusi before setting up another Barcelona attack. It was that kind of night.
There has been plenty of speculation about the future of Atlético’s trainer, Quique Sánchez Flores, over the last 10 days. The previous weekend’s home defeat to Athletic Bilbao had been utterly abject. Atleti’s recent record against the champions was better than mosts, but could they really halt the Catalans’ march to a record-breaking 16th straight win? In truth it would have been surprising, even more surprising than the manager’s decision to leave an out-of-sorts Diego Forlán on the substitutes’ bench.
Barcelona were hardly forced to break a sweat. With a swarm of rojiblanco defenders between him and the goal, Lionel Messi did what he always likes to do- what you knew he would try to do – and cut infield from the right-hand flank. Once the space had opened up, he planted the ball low inside David De Gea’s near-post. Inside the half-hour mark, he popped up on the end of a precise passing move to make it two. Some incredibly sloppy defending allowed the Argentine to claim the match ball- and his 40th goal of an extraordinary season- ten minutes from time. ‘And on the seventh day, God created Messi’ read a banner draped from the curva sur. Little wonder that Sánchez Flores drew the comparison with another porteño, Alfredo di Stefano, in a post-match interview.
No shocks in Catalonia then, but the city’s other team, Espanyol, were stunned on their visit to Almería earlier in the day. Almería went into this one anchored to foot of the table, alongside Levante and Málaga. Espanyol were hoping to get their Champions League push back on track. Fat chance. Inside 18 exhilarating minutes they found themselves 3-0 down. A spirited comeback saw them pull it back to 3-2, but Almería just managed to hang on. Not to be upstaged, Levante were busy pulling off the weekend’s other standout result. Few would have given them a chance at third-placed Villarreal, but a second-half strike from wide man Valdo stunned the Madrigal, and floored the home side.
There were no such surprises on Sunday night at the Bernabéu. In one of their best performances in recent months, Real obliterated Real Sociedad by a margin of four goals to one. Cristiano Ronaldo hauled himself back level with Messi in the race for the pichichi, bagging a brace against the Basques; the pair will take their duel to the international arena this Wednesday, when Argentina face-off against Portugal in Switzerland. Earlier, Kaká had opened the scoring for the hosts and at the death Emmanuel Adebayor scored his second goal of the week to round-off an emphatic victory.
Marca devoted much of Monday’s print edition to their endless and tiresome quest to big Cristiano Ronaldo up at the expense of Barça’s star attraction, with Jorge Valdano, taking time out from his simmering feud with José Mourinho, to proclaim the Portuguese forward as the true heir of di Stefano’s legacy. “We wouldn’t swap him for anybody. More than Messi, I believe he is the 21st century di Stefano because the wears the same shirt”. Quite.
Meanwhile, the general director’s nemesis had been busying himself speaking to former Real defender Christian Panucci for Sky Italia. Nothing groundbreaking, but Mourinho did reveal a desire to finish his managerial career in the United States. “An apartment in Manhattan, or a house in Malibu; wouldn’t that be ideal!”.
On more immediate matters, he returned to a familiar theme, comparing his side chastening defeat at the Camp Nou to last season’s group stage defeat on the same ground of his former side Internazionale. “Look, in this game we could’t even see the ball, never mind do anything with it. It finished 5-0, but had it lasted another ten minutes, it might have been six, or even seven. It wasn’t a memorable night [for Madrid] but we must not forget the lessons. Last season with Inter it was 2-0, but in reality it could easily have been four. That gave us the basis to come back and have our revenge in the semi-finals, and I plan to do exactly the same with Real Madrid this season”.
At the same time, both David Villa and Sergio Ramos were insisting that nothing was done and dusted as far as La Liga is concerned. “We haven’t lost it yet, and we’re going to keep on fighting”, said Ramos. Speaking to the Catalan daily Sport, his international team-mate went on the claim that “nothing is won in February. We’re going to have to keep on struggling to make sure we win this title”. Fighting; struggling.
Another man fighting and struggling was Dani Alves. “I’ll do everything possible to stay at this club”, said the Brazilian who was reported to be leveraging a pay-rise on the back of Manchester City’s reputed interest back in November.
Going into this international week, national team boss Vicente Del Bosque was under no illusions about the world champions’ poor friendly record since returning from South Africa last summer. September’s startling 4-1 defeat in Buenos Aires against Argentina might have seemed suitably freakish at the time, a case of the visitors playing just about as poorly as they could while the albiceleste excelled themselves in front of the home crowd at the Monumental. Wins in their Euro 2012 campaign suggested this may have been the case. But then came November’s trip to Lisbon, where a Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal tore them to pieces with four unanswered second-half goals. “We simply have to improve, that much is clear” said Del Bosque on Monday. The selección will have to buck up their ideas against Colombia in the absence of Cesc Fàbregas however, as the Arsenal skipper withdrew from the squad due to a bout of gastroenteritis.
Finally, late on Monday night word broke that Racing Santander had parted company with trainer Miguel Angel Portugal. A poor run of form has seen the Cantabrian side slide from mid-table to a precarious position, just one point above the drop zone. Racing, recently taken over by Indian tycoon Ahsan Ali Syed, have moved quickly to stop the rot but it remains to be seen just who the club have in mind to take over at the helm.
Almería 3 Espanyol 2
Athletic Bilbao 3 Sporting Gijon 0
Getafe 4 Deportivo La Coruña 1
Osasuna 1 Mallorca 1
Real Zaragoza 1 Racing Santander 1
Villarreal 0 Levante 1
Barcelona 3 Atlético Madrid 0
Sevilla 0 Málaga 0
Real Madrid 4 Real Sociedad 1
Valencia 2 Hércules 0