Fuzzy orange wig celebrations as Valencia prove their title credentials

La Liga week three was the week where the top two met, a ghost goal and goal-line technology debates, a big fuzzy orange wig, big comebacks, found form, and bizarre late drama.

Before the start of the season nobody imagined that Valencia would be involved in a top-of-the-table clash, let alone remain unbeaten after it.

There were emotional scenes at Los Che’s Mestalla stadium this weekend following the passing of their legendary former president Jaume Ortí. Under Ortí’s tenure, Valencia won two La Liga titles, a UEFA Cup, and a European Super Cup, led by manager Rafael Benítez.

An already emotional game against Barcelona was given another level of intrigue with this terrible news, as Ortí is seen by Valencia fans as the man who at last brought them up to the level they belong to, the pinnacle of Spanish football.

Valencia are back fighting at the summit of La Liga football, to practically everybody’s surprise. Manager Marcelino and team leaders Dani Parejo, Rodrigo Moreno, Jose Gayá and Jaume Domenech stayed with Ortí’s family after training on the Saturday, and couldn’t make the funeral on the Sunday, as they had the task of welcoming Barcelona to a raucous Mestalla.

Thousands of fans greeted the Valencia players outside the ground as the team bus arrived two hours before kick off, prompting defender Gabriel Paulista to comment,

It’s impossible not to take to the pitch like a mad man after that reception. In Brazil I’ve seen similar, but there aren’t many fanbases like that in Europe.

On the pitch, Barcelona showed a certain amount of control that they have shown on many occasions this season, but never this good. They dictated the pace of the game from the off and Valencia had no choice but to try to defend as rigidly as possible and hit on the counter.

The league leaders ran out with four central midfielders across the middle line with full backs Alba and Semedo providing the width to their play. Iniesta, Suarez, and Messi ran the show, especially in the first half.

Due to Pique’s suspension, forgotten man Thomas Vermaelen made his first La Liga start in a very long time.

The Belgian didn’t stand out, which is probably the kind of performance you want from a centre back playing in these circumstances, but he was beaten at the near post by Rodrigo for the Valencia goal, perhaps showing a lack of match fitness and understanding with defensive partner Umtiti.

After Rodrigo scored, he found the ballboy he had been coordinating with before the game, who was instructed to hand him a bright orange curly wig to celebrate with.

This was an homage to the aforementioned Jaume Ortí, who donned a similar wig celebrating La Liga titles in his day.

Rodrigo nearly received a yellow card for the celebration too, but in the end the referee must have realised the connection and decided against booking the striker.

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Before Valencia were able to take the lead, Barca already had. Or, they should have, at least.

Leo Messi, in the middle of the sixth worst goalscoring drought of his career without having scored in a month, took a one-touch shot from outside the box that Domenech couldn’t handle properly.

In Roy Carroll fashion, the keeper acted like nothing had happened and the ball was not clearly a foot over the line, before quickly palming it to safety.

Up the pitch Valencia went immediately afterwards, and Simone Zaza’s shot came within a yard of giving the Catalans the biggest sucker punch of the season.

The incident highlighted once again the need for goal-line technology in La Liga. Barcelona suffered a similar fate ten months ago against Real Betis, when a clear Luis Suarez goal wasn’t given in a game that ultimately finished 1-1.

That goal not given went a long way to denting Barca’s failed title bid for 2016/17, only time will tell if the blaugranas will be left feeling as aggrieved as that day.

The calmest and most collected manager in La Liga, Ernesto Valverde, was quick to play down the ghost goal, and not make excuses for their fortunes:

Against Málaga we scored when the ball had gone out of bounds, today it hurt us instead. We’re all affected by the refs.

Leo Messi’s genius isn’t a secret to anybody, and it’s wrong to take his supreme talents for granted so it would be remiss to finish this column without mentioning his unbelievable pass to Jordi Alba for the late equaliser.

Nobody in the world can pass a ball like Leo Messi. Everybody knows he’s going to do it, but nobody can ever stop him.

Ultimately, Valencia went toe-to-toe with Barcelona, and weathered every storm that came their way.

Had the ghost goal been given, perhaps it would be a different story. But the record books will read that Valencia are still unbeaten, and still breathing down Barcelona’s neck, and now absolutely must be taken seriously as a genuine title contender.

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And also…

There’s suddenly striker revolution going on at Atletico Madrid. Last week, this column talked about the various striker problems Atleti, among others, were having. In the week since, they have scored seven goals in all competitions.

Against Levante, they lined out with all of Griezmann, Gameiro and Correa from the start, while against Roma they finished that must-win game with those three plus Fernando Torres on the pitch.

Diego Simeone seems to be coming out of his defensive shell a bit, and Griezmann and Gameiro, authors of six goals of the seven they scored in the last week, are now brimming with confidence.

Griezmann is a fantastic player but when he’s been isolated as the number 9 in recent weeks, he’s cut a lonely figure. Playing alone at the tip of Atleti’s attack didn’t suit him, and the team are much better off now fielding more attack talent surrounding him.

According to the Argentine manager:

We’ve been growing, in the last three or four games we have improved in our pressure and intensity.

They’ve looked it too. The extra attackers on the pitch, with the all important confidence to back up their play too, make Atleti look a completely refreshed team. Los Colchoneros are now 13 games unbeaten to start this La Liga campaign – their best opening run ever.

Málaga don’t deserve to be in the relegation zone. The record books will show they lost to Real Madrid this weekend, but for periods of the game, particularly in the final 30 minutes, the Andalusians were the better team.

They fearlessly looked to impose themselves on the ball throughout the game and take the question to hosts Real Madrid, whereas it should be the other way round.

Málaga were unlucky. Paul Baysse scored a goal from a brilliant header right on the stroke of half time to make it 2-2, but the referee inexplicably ruled it out. Los blancos went into the break with the lead still in tact.

The visitors hadn’t scored a goal away from home all season, but come to the home of the defending Spanish and European champions, and score two – three in total including the one not allowed

Curiously, Real Madrid are now left with that statistical anomaly for the season, as well as allowing Deportivo Alavés to score their first goal of the season after six games against them too.

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As for los blancos, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema look to have put their bad runs of form behind them with a goal each. Ronaldo in particular was very lively and could have scored a hat-trick with the chances he created in the first half, but for bad luck preventing him from scoring until the second.

Like rivals Atletico Madrid, the pair filled their boots in the Champions League before this La Liga gameweek, and returned to goalscoring ways against whipping boys APOEL. Benzema and Ronaldo both scored two against the Cypriots that night and both returned to the score sheet again.

There’s life in Eibar yet. Not long ago, this column spelled disaster for the Basques, but since then they’ve more than doubled their previous goal tally for the entire year courtesy of a bizarre 5-0 drubbing of Real Betis and a crucial 2-1 win away to fellow Basques Alavés.

Those two hugely important wins have now brought them from the brink of despair to seven points clear of the drop. Ivan Alejo’s return from injury has given them a spark they’ve badly lacked, while Mendilibar has also finally ditched the notion of playing five defenders.

Yet another brilliant comeback from Sevilla! Yet again three goals scored in the second half to get a result.

They overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Villarreal 3-2 in a wonderful game. Carlos Bacca’s magnificent solo effort put Villarreal 2-0 up in the 53rd minute, but by the 56th, it was 2-2 already. Ever Banega put the final touch on a brilliant comeback victory.

More important than the result is the state of Sevilla manager Eduardo Berizzo’s health. Diagnosed with prostate cancer last week, the Argentine will have surgery on Tuesday this week, and he’ll be deciding on his future following that.

For the moment, there are no plans to step down from his role at Sevilla, and his assistant Ernesto Marcucci will be calling the shots in his, hopefully brief, absence from the sideline.

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In the 94th minute of Real Betis vs Girona, the score was 1-1, thanks to Andrés Guardado’s 85th minute equaliser with a pinpoint free kick.

When Cristian Portu popped up with his second of the game to give Girona the 2-1 advantage in the 94th minute, fans started pouring out of the Benito Villamarín.

Little did they know they were about to miss one of the craziest endings to a league game this season, as Cristian Tello converted the last chance, roll-of-the-dice, hoof-it-up-and-hope chance of the game.

Amazingly, the game finished 2-2, after Girona took the lead in the fourth minute of four minutes added.

Paco Ayesterán has finally won his first La Liga point as a manager! After 13 games in charge, overseeing 13 losses at the helm of Valencia and Las Palmas over two spells in management, Ayesterán had made a record-breaking beginning to life as a manager, in the worst possible way.

His Las Palmas team showed grit and won a point away to Real Sociedad, after falling 2-1 behind from a winning position. Jonathan Viera showed beautiful creativity to find the equalising, point-clinching, goal.

Goal of the Week – Carlos Bacca

Villarreal. After a Sevilla corner broke outside the Villarreal penalty area, Pablo Fornals intelligently put the ball into space.

The Colombian striker pounced on it still inside his own area, and a powerful sprint took him past Lionel Carole and Sergio Rico.

Most impressive was Bacca’s control of the ball at such a quick pace, neatly rounding Rico in the Sevilla net before finishing.

(Annoyingly, the below highlights of the game cut off the first half of Bacca’s run for the goal. We would never advise you to search for any unauthorised, unofficial video of the goal with the run in full, which would be very easy to find anyway.)

Player of the Week – Cristian Portu

The Girona striker had clinched his team a fantastic, last-gasp winner, with his second goal of the game in the 94th minute, but for his defenders to fall asleep on his hard work and throw the win away right at the death.

The Murciano couldn’t have done more to help his team win a huge three points in a difficult away ground to visit.

La Liga Week 13 results in full

Celta Vigo 1-0 Leganes
Alavés 1-2 Eibar
Real Madrid 3-2 Málaga
Real Betis 2-2 Girona
Levante 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Deportivo La Coruña 2-2 Athletic Bilbao
Real Sociedad 2-2 Las Palmas
Villarreal 2-3 Sevilla
Valencia 1-1 Barcelona
Espanyol 1-0 Getafe.

The Author

Cillian Shields

Cillian Shields is an Irish football writer currently living in Barcelona, focusing on Spain's La Liga. Interests include the intersection of politics and football, football history, and smaller, humble teams with noisy, boisterous fans.

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