Jornada 23 of this season’s La Liga campaign saw so many twists and turns that it’s hard to know just where to begin. Barça finally dropping points? Check. Sevilla making a pigs ear of matters in the most spectacular manner possible (even for Sevilla)? Checkaroo. Managers on the brink, shoved aside, or back with a bang? Check. Málaga winning a game? Well, no, let’s not get giddy here, but they managed to make up ground on the sides immediately above them by default as Almería and Osasuna both suffered defeat.
We could start this week’s round-up with Barcelona; we could well even start with Real’s gripping encounter away to Espanyol last night. Ordinarily, writing about the top two can be a tedious affair; tedious given the fact that they are so far ahead of the rest, tedious in trying to avoid repetition in just how mind-bogglingly brilliant the champions are, or in waxing over the latest goal exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Well, for once, none of that actually applied this weekend. And yet, it’s not with either of the big two where the story of the weekend should start.
That honour falls to the first game of the weekend, as Valencia headed to the capital to face Atlético Madrid and pile the pressure on their erstwhile técnico Quique Sánchez Flores.
Not that Quique wasn’t under enough pressure as it was. It might seem harsh- preposterous, even- that the man who had brought Atleti their first silverware in some 14 seasons, their first European trophy in the age of colour television, should be looking over his shoulder with his side still in the hunt for a return to Europe next season. Well, yes and no. Sánchez Flores’ win ratio in his twelve months at the helm has been somewhat underwhelming. And successive defeats, to Barcelona- small beer, admittedly- trailed by frankly abysmal showings against Bilbao and and at Sporting hardly helped his cause. Add to that the institutional crisis of the nuthouse that is Atlético, and it was small wonder that many had this down as the coach’s last chance to fight off the P45.
And it all started so well for rojiblanco. The sometimes brilliant, often infuriating, José Antonio Reyes got them off to a flying start, going on to be involved in everything good that his side produced. Diego Fórlan, back in the side after being benched at Camp Nou, combined on the left with Kun Agüero to tee up the formal Arsenal attacker who made no mistake, sliding a left-footed strike beneath Vicente Guaita at his near post. Finally, the Vicente Calderon had something to shout about.
It wouldn’t last, however.
They say it’s the hope that kills you, a sentiment so depressingly familiar on this ground that underpins the club’s psyche and forms the basis of one of the ultras’ terrace favourites. Heartbreak, agony, humiliation? These are the initiation rituals for the Calderon faithful. Nothing new. But the turn this game took will have stretched the sanity of many to its breaking point.
Bang! Four minutes short of the interval, Joaquín was at hand to shake the home support out of their reverie, netting from the visitors’ first meaningful attack of the game. Silence descended as the familiar sense of foreboding grew. The hosts had bossed the half but football can be a cruel game, and its cruelty borders on masochism for those who pin their colours to the Atleti mast.
Hope was soon followed by more agony. Just short of the hour, Reyes burst into the area only to be hacked down by Hedwiges Maduro. Penalty! Up stepped Diego Fórlan. Ordinarily, you’d put your house on the winner of the World Cup Golden Ball to find the net from 12 yards. These aren’t ordinary times for the out-of-sorts Uruguayan though, who watched in disbelief as the ball rebounded back into play off the upright after doing the hard work in sending Guaita the wrong way.
Guaita was without a doubt Valencia’s star performer on the night, thwarting Atlético time and time again, most notably from Reyes as the game entered its final quarter. But the headlines were to be stolen by Joaquín. Double agony. A neat counter-attack 5 minutes from time allowed him to net a fine winner, and the best response Atleti could muster was an idiotic sending off for Diego Godín. Plus ça change. As it stands, Sánchez Flores retains his post but don’t be surprised if that’s changed by the time you read this.
If Atlético’s immutable sense of the farcical, that uncanny ability to turn wins into draws and draws into defeats, has been earned over decades, then Sevilla have some way to go. On the balance of the season to date, they’ve been pulling out all the stops. Improbable misses, underperforming superstars, defending that would make a Segunda B team blush; chalk it all down. How sad it is to see a club that were one of the leagues leading lights for most of the last decade languish so. Time was, they ran the opposition ragged, with Daniel Alves playing the triple roll of defender, creative fulcrum, and goalscorer as the side fought for league titles and won trophies at home and abroad by the bucketload; these days, they’re an oddly disjointed bunch, with all the vigour and creativity of narcoleptic accountants’ conference.
They can still be fun though, albeit in an unwittingly tragic fashion. On Saturday they travelled north to take on Racing Santander at El Sardinero. The Cantabrians’ bombastic new owner, Ali Syed, has dispensed with the services of manager Miguel Ángel Portugal after last week’s draw at Zaragoza, bringing back the popular former coach Marcelino. And the move seemed to have paid off. Goals from Christian Fernández and a dreadful own-goal from Ivan Rakitic fell either side of Sevilla’s penalty miss to give them a well earned lead and it was hard to see just how Sevilla might come back into it. Luís Fabiano appears to have left his scoring boots in South Africa, and even with ten men after Fernández’s dismissal before the break, the home team seemed comfortable in containing a Sevilla side bereft of attacking nous.
But the Andalusians got another break right after the sending off when Fazio netted to bring it back to 2-1. Enter Álvaro Negredo. The former Real Madrid canterista might have scored more than any non-Barcelona player in his final year on loan at Almería, a feat which encouraged Sevilla sporting director and erstwhile transfer wizard Monchi to break the bank to secure his services 18 months back. But his game remains a blend of the inspired and the infuriating; mostly the latter. But a second penalty kick, this time converted by Fabiano dragged them level in a manner scarcely befitting the craft they’d shown 7 minutes from time. A point looked safe then. Could Sevilla pull a win out? Surely they couldn’t lose now. But of course, this is Sevilla we’re talking about. And of course they managed to fluff their lines, somehow. With Andrés Palop on walkabout a lofted clearance found its way to Arana to volley home from 40 yards to secure three points at the death.
But of course, there is a top two and there is a reason why on Sunday morning (in hope) and today (with more solid rationale) the Madrid press have been proclaiming ‘¡HAY LIGA!’ – ‘There IS a League!’- on their covers. Most would have expected Barcelona to extend their record winning streak in Gijon on Saturday night, while Real’s trip to fortress Cornellà to face Espanyol on Sunday looked a trickier prospect on paper. That’s not quite how it worked out for either team.
It could hardly be described as wholesale surgery, but following the midweek internationals, Pep Guardiola made some minor changes to his starting XI. Gabriel Milito came in for Eric Abidal to partner Gerard Piqué at the heart of the defence, whilst January signing Ibrahim Afellay started in place of Pedro on the right of the attack. In the engine room, Argentina captain Javier Mascherano got the nod ahead of Sergio Busquets.
It was hardly surprising, then, that the champions were lacking their hallmark fluency in the opening period. What did come a surprise was David Barral’s goal a quarter of an hour in. Sporting pulled back, parked the bus, and defended as if their very lives depended on it. It was up to Barça to find a way to breach this determined rearguard, yet despite monopolising possession (some 76% by full-time) and dominating the openings, they made heavy weather of it. A sloppiness entered their play as they spurned opportunities, and even Xavi Hernández misplaced more than one pass. Eventually, Guardiola moved to rectify his selection errors, bringing in Bojan for a tired-looking Andrés Iniesta, Pedro for Afellay, and Keita for Milito, with Mascherano dropping back into central defence. Still, they looked laboured in everything. Then, with 10 minutes remaining a David Villa golazo hauled them level but they failed to push on to claim the win.
A day later, Real Madrid got off to the worst possible of starts against Espanyol. Just two minutes were played when Iker Casillas got a rush of blood to the head, charging out of his area to fell José Callejón for a straight red. Marca, predictably, produced any number of images to ‘prove’ that the sanction had been harsh: “UNJUST RED TO CASILLAS!” screamed this morning’s headline. Meanwhile, back in the real world, it was a little harder to argue against; despite the contact being minimal, by the letter of the law, a goalscoring opportunity had been denied and once that much has been agreed upon a red must follow.
7 points behind going into this weekend, Real had been handed a lifeline in the title race by the previous night’s surprise result. Now, not only did they look to have squandered that, but they would have to face a better-than-decent Espanyol side for another 88 minutes with 10 men. Suddenly 7 points turning into 8 looked a decent bet.
Nobody told that to Marcelo though. Having arguably his best game of the season, the Brazilian stunned the home crowd to net midway through the first half. Alongside him, his compatriot Pepe turned in a textbook defensive display as the Real backline held tight. Espanyol’s success this season has been based on dogged determination, organisation, and getting their noses in front. On the night, they found no way back and slumped to defeat with a whimper. The margin would have been greater had Emanuel Adebayor not passed up two presentable challenges late on.
That made it three defeats on the spin for the Catalan side and they now lie a point behind fifth placed Bilbao, who travel to Mallorca tonight. With Getafe and Sevilla both dropping points, they still have some margin for error in relation to the sides below them but it looks like we can close the book on their prospects of making the Champions League this season.
And on that Champions League chase; with Bilbao visiting Mallorca tonight, they find themselves presented with an excellent opportunity to haul themselves to within four points of that priceless fourth spot.
That position is now occupied by Villarreal who were leapfrogged by Valencia following their second straight reversal, this time away to Deportivo La Coruña. Hampered as they are by injuries, Juan Carlos Garrido’s side have no time to feel sorry for themselves. On Thursday, they are in action away to Napoli in the Europa League, where they’ll have to keep the hottest striker in European football, Edinson Cavani, under wraps if they’re to give themselves any chance of progressing.
Valencia will host a wobbling Schalke in the Champions League on Tuesday, but the continent’s eyes will be fixed on Wednesday’s visit of Barcelona to take on Arsenal at the Emirates. Last season’s quarter final between these sides produced 9 goals in all, including four in North London as a Zlatan-inspired Barça were pegged back to 2-2 before being blowing Arsene Wenger’s charges away at the Camp Nou. Arsenal look a much better side this season; their problem is that the same is just as true of their opponents. Whatever the final outcome, goals are surely guaranteed and Arsenal will not a want to permit Lionel Messi any repeat of last season’s four goal masterclass which saw them depart Europe’s premier competition.
Atlético 1 Valencia 2
Sporting Gijon 1 Barcelona 1
Racing Santander 3 Sevilla 2
Hércules 2 Real Zaragoza 1
Levante 1 Almería 0
Málaga 2 Getafe 2
Real Sociedad 1 Osasuna 0
Deportivo La Coruña 1 Villarreal 0
Espanyol 0 Real Madrid 1
Mallorca v Athletic Bilbao (21:00 CET/20:00 GMT)