Remontada! One word summed up this weekend’s action in La Liga like no other. This was the weekend of the comeback. Not in the title race, where Real reverted to type by failing to win in A Coruña having broken their 19 year hoodoo in Galicia last term; but elsewhere we saw more swings than a well-stocked playground. So many, in fact, even those arch proponents of the anti-remontada, Atlético got a piece of the action. But it’s with the much maligned Monday night slot that we’ll begin.
Almería sat 19th going into the weekend. They’ve sunk like a stone while the sides around them had, for the most part, been slowly getting their collective acts together since the winter break. Having slipped to a draw that felt like a defeat against Deportivo the week before, they faced off against a Málaga side who’d snatched one that felt like a win at Villarreal in their previous outing. With the Andalusians lagging a point behind them at the foot of the table, neither side could afford to lose ground on Zaragoza and Gijon, who played out a draw on Saturday evening.
It all began so well for Almería. Inside ten minutes they were a goal to the good, Luna jinking his way down the left and his cross ultimately being knocked home by the on-loan Frenchman Sofiane Feghouli. And they continued to impress throughout the opening period, but imploded after the break.
It’s been a desperate time for Málaga’s trainer, Manuel Pellegrini. Unloved and chased out of town by Marca & AS despite securing the highest points haul in Real Madrid’s history last year, his remarkably successful reign at Villarreal seems largely, and unfairly, forgotten. His return to the Bernabéu in midweek can probably be chalked down as a defeat already, and with kinder fixtures awaiting his fellow strugglers, a result here was absolutely imperative.
His response? To turn to his winter signing, the former Juventus and Sevilla striker Enzo Maresca. The Italian’s goal record over the past three years hardly inspires confidence but six minutes, and some wojus defending, later he was at hand to level the game.
And here’s where it began to fall apart for the visitors. Leonardo Ulloa and Rodriguez both saw red. In between, Salómon Rondon was left unmarked to head his side into the lead. If the marking was suspect for the second, it was non-existent in stoppage time as Juanmí was given the freedom the penalty box to slam home emphatically. Little wonder then that Pellegrini couldn’t mask his delight after a win that lifted his side off the foot of the table.
“Of course I’m satisfied. We needed this win, above all at home. We’ve improved our situation. Hopefully we can now press on on the back of this momentum”. As for his return to Madrid, he remained inscrutable. “I will always be grateful to the Real faithful, I will always be proud of what we did manage to achieve in my time there. I will always feel lucky to have presided over a record-breaking campaign”.
Meanwhile, his former club may well have blown once and for all whatever slim chance they retained of overcoming Barcelona. Not that Marca, or anybody else for that matter, is clamouring to call for José Mourinho’s head on the back of that. No, with Jorge Valdano sidelined, the special one’s position seems more secure than ever. Even the cowed sporting director was at hand to back up the team’s efforts. The press- and the 70% of those polled on AS’s website who want the former Ballon d’Or winner out the gap come the summer- have channelled their frustrations on Kaká, who endured another poor evening before being hauled off on the hour mark.
In truth, this was a million miles from some of the horror shows Real have suffered over the years on their travels to the Riazor. They played well, probably well enough to have won several games, particularly so after Kaká’s exit. But a heroic display from goalkeeper Dani Aranzuiba- who lest it be forgotten, had scored to earn Depor that draw against Almería a week before- coupled with erratic finishing, and plain old bad luck, saw them slip back to seven points behind the champions. Mourinho blamed the fixture schedule at full time, much to the mirth of just about everybody. Cue a slew of interviews with, amongst others, Sevilla boss Gregorio Manzano telling everyone’s favourite mouthy Portuguese “¡Callate!”. “We’ve played four games in nine days, and you don’t hear me complaining!”. Barcelona president Sandro Rosell rowed in pithily on Monday “Pep never complains about this, and neither do our rugby team, our basketball players, or those in the NBA.”
Barcelona won, again. Well, okay; Mallorca certainly didn’t lie down, but once Messi opened the scoring the result was never in any doubt. Further goals from David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez probably make it look a lot easier than it was though, and their lack of cohesion in Xavi’s absence would have left the culés hoping that their midfield talisman will be well rested ahead of coming challenges.
We might well have seen the game of the week on Sunday, as Valencia staged another remontada against Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames. It was certainly an impressive performance by Los Ches. Juan Mata and recent recruit Jonas turned it around after Fernando Llorente had put the hosts ahead a quarter of hour in. That’s 8 out of the last 10 games where Valencia have scored in the final ten minutes, and their fourth comeback of the new year; not only that, but if Opta José is to be believed, they’ve now gained more points from losing positions than anyone else this season. And Joaquín put in an incredible shift.
Will this match be remembered for any of that, though? Not bloody likely. No, David Navarro saw to that with one of the most laughable pieces of playacting you will see anywhere this year, which had Bilbao’s starlet Mikel San José wondering whether the oscar for best actor should have gone his way, and Marca branding him as public enemy number one. How to even do it justice? You’ll have to view this one on youtube. How Joaquín managed to keep a straight face during when stating that he and his team-mates would defend the niggly little so-and-so “to the death” leads one to believe that he possesses a talent for deadpan stand-up that we’ve managed to overlook up until now.
Back to the comebacks, then. The aforementioned Atlético came back twice to draw at home to Sevilla, with José Antonio Reyes earning the point twelve minutes from time. Sevilla had, of course, staged the week’s greatest comeback-that-never-quite was in winning in Oporto, but bowed out of the Europa League on away goals midweek. Villarreal, who’d had to come back from Marek Hamsik’s opener to progress in the same competition against Napoli were at it again, with Nilmar equalising at the death away to a Racing side who continue to impress under the stewardship of Marcelino.
As for the papers; when they haven’t been screaming blue murder over Navarro or the activities of Arsenal’s youth recruitment policies, Serie A related transfers have been the staple. Inevitably, after his tremendous display in Udinese’s 7-0 routing of Palermo, much of this talk has centered on wideman Alexis Sánchez. Tuesday’s Sport reports that Barcelona face stiff competition from the likes of Milan, Juventus and Manchester United to sign the Chilean maestro for a rumoured 40 million euros. His coach Francesco Guidolin was quoted as saying that “we’ll have to see what happens [with Sánchez]. All this talk is bound to turn his head. What’s certain is that he is destined to become one of the best attackers in the world.”.
Meanwhile, the staggering, gin-slurring old lady Juventus could be planning a double swoop on Barcelona this summer. El Mundo Deportivo, regurgitating speculation from the Turin daily Tuttosport tells us that a move to convince Argentina captain Javier Mascherano and tomorrow’s next big thing, yesterday, Bojan Krkic to trade the blaugrana and trophies for the bianconeri and mid-table mediocrity next term is in offing. This, of course, ties in neatly with growing speculation that former Liverpudlian corner-flag decapitator and graduate from the Paul Scholes school of tackling, Momo Sissoko, will be on his way to Real in in the close season. Oh, and while we’re at it, that renowned attendee of the Bernard Hopkins school of annoyingly-speaking-of-one’s-self-in-the-third-person, Dani Alves, announced that “I can’t imagine a Dani Alves without el Barça”, leaving this column to point out, yet again, that this certainly did not seem the case when his agent was putting out feelers to Manchester City a couple of months back.
And a final ‘oh!’; Kaká’s father (also his agent) was quoted in Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport on Tuesday morning on the subject of his son moving back to his former club Milan, and refused to deny the rumours. “You’ll have to speak to [Milan CEO] Adriano Galliani. Is it possible? We’ll shall see.”
Atlético Madrid 2 Sevilla 2
Espanyol 4 Real Sociedad 1
Sporting Gijon 0 Real Zaragoza 0
Mallorca 0 Barcelona 3
Deportivo La Coruña 0 Real Madrid 0
Hércules 0 Getafe 0
Levante 2 Osasuna 1
Racing Santander 2 Villarreal 2
Athletic Bilbao 1 Valencia 2
Málaga 3 Almería 1
Espanyol v Mallorca
Sevilla v Sporting Gijon
Getafe v Atlético Madrid
Osasuna v Deportivo La Coruña
Real Sociedad v Levante
Villarreal v Hércules
Real Zaragoza v Athletic Bilbao
Valencia v Barcelona
Almería v Racing Santander
Real Madrid v Málaga