It’s all change at the top. After 16 weeks of white, it’s now scarlet blue, and with two weeks ‘til the clásico, Real have plenty to rue.
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Well there’s a poetic start for you, but you may recall that a fortnight ago in this column, mention was made of the fact that Real Madrid’s two subsequent games, at home to Villarreal and away to an improving Athletic Bilbao, looked like tricky terrain to negotiate for a team low on morale.
The absences of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez haven’t helped their cause, nor the drop in form of Cristiano Ronaldo (suffering one of his occasional mortal phases) and the problems of Toni Kroos, who suddenly looks as though he isn’t really a defensive holding midfielder (he isn’t).
But in the new San Mames on Saturday evening against their lion-hearted hosts – fresh from qualifying for the King’s Cup final in midweek – the visitors lacked leadership, a game plan, and a further plan ‘B’ after Athletic decided to shut down Isco and then go for the game themselves.
Aritz Aduriz, the goalscorer on Saturday night, merits a mention. There is an annoying tendency in the Spanish press to headline ‘Real Madrid lose!’ as opposed to ‘the other team won!’, but that’s the way things are.
Nevertheless, Athletic’s centre-forward Aduriz is now 34, and has one Spain cap back in 2010 against Lithuania to his name. Despite the competition for a place in the national team over the years, the strange truth is that Aduriz seems to improve the older he gets.
This is true of most footballers, of course, but the range of the improvement rarely extends beyond a player’s late twenties, especially for forward thinking players.
Aduriz is a traditional striker; big and solid, good in the air and decent on the ground, with the ability to ‘hang’ when challenging for aerial balls – but there is nothing about him which suggests he should be playing the best football of his career.
Athletic’s high-tempo game requires him to be constantly on the move and to harass opposing defenders who try to bring the ball out to supply their creative midfielders.
His goal in the first half of the game on Saturday was a beauty – one fashioned from the old-school. Mikel Rico whipped in a cross from a diagonal position, and Aduriz rose in front of Pepe and bulleted the ball into the top corner where Casillas couldn’t reach and the spider-webs wobble.
I saw Aduriz back in the late 1990s playing for the incredibly productive youth academy side Antiguoko in San Sebastían, and apart from looking big he seemed nothing special. Teams were rumoured to be watching him, but graduate outfit Real Sociedad weren’t interested.
He managed three appearances for Athletic in 2002 before moving to Burgos and Valladolid, before returning for three seasons in 2005 before the emergence of Fernando Llorente deemed him surplus to requirements.
A couple of seasons at Mallorca followed, and Aduriz scored goals again, earning a move to Valencia where he managed 17 in two seasons before a third spell at San Mames beckoned.
He’s managed 40 goals in 89 appearances now, and nobody remembers Llorente. Wouldn’t it be nice if Del Bosque called him up, just for the late show? He wouldn’t disappoint.
Neither did Barcelona on Sunday, deciding to gorge from the food tray they were handed by Real Madrid the previous evening. The runes were good.
— Athletic Club (@AthleticClub) March 7, 2015
In their previous seven meetings, Barcelona had scored 31 times against Rayo Vallecano, with the Madrid-based outfit replying just once. In some ways the figures speak highly of Rayo, since they are not a side who set out to defend. They try to play football – possibly because they have no bus to park.
It seemed to be going quite well up to half-time, with Luis Suarez’ early goal not too much of a mountain to climb, but the second half turned sour for them and Leo Messi ended up with yet another hat-trick.
It was the Argentine’s 32nd of his Barcelona career, making him the player with most hat-tricks in the history of La Liga. Is Messi now going for a record of records? Does that category exist in the Guinness annals? Perhaps they should include it now.
In Barca’s 6-1 victory over Rayo, Messi overtook Zarra in La Liga hat-tricks, the same player whose 50-year goal-scoring record was broken by the diminutive forward recently.
At the same time Messi caught up with Ronaldo in league goals this term, the two players now tied on 30 goals. To continue the extraordinary stats about Messi, it is worth mentioning that he has now scored 40 or more goals (in all competitions) for the last six seasons.
Lionel Messi has now been directly involved in 22 La Liga goals during 2015; no other TEAM has scored more than 21. pic.twitter.com/ckJpVmUFuL
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 8, 2015
In 2014-15, he now has 41 after 38 games. It’s all a bit astonishing, but it shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the surge in Barcelona’s form has also coincided with a parallel improvement in Luis Suarez, and his unselfish repertoire of high-speed passing and positional changes.
It’s all looking a bit scary now, and the more Luis Enrique realises that the best way to man-manage at the Camp Nou is to basically keep a low profile, the better it will become.
Next week his team visits little Eibar, a team recently down on their luck with seven consecutive defeats. Teams have begun to find them out – not that there was anything to find out really.
Eibar have made no pretence of their humble origins and lack of spending power to compete with the rest, but the lack of top-flight quality is beginning to show as they tire, players get injured, and the fairy-tale novelty begins to wear off.
If they stop Barcelona next week, then it may be time to believe in miracles. Real Madrid play the late game on Sunday at home to Levante and will desperately need a good performance to put them in the mood for El Clasico, although at least they get their Champions League game with Schalke out of the way this coming week (they’re 2-0 up from the first leg in Germany).
On the other hand, Barcelona play Manchester City four days before the derby. Just think, if José Mourinho were still here he’d have nothing to complain about.
Behind them, the game of the day at the Calderón between Atlético and Valencia ended all square (1-1) with Koke’s first-half goal cancelled out by Mustafi later in the game. Atlético will be kicking themselves, missing out on a chance to make up ground on their city neighbours.
Valencia are only a point behind Atlético, and have earned the right to still be taken seriously. Their point at the Calderon was proof of the pudding. They’ve only lost once in their last thirteen games.
The other news of the week is the shocking case of Osasuna, whose ex-Director, Txuma Peralta, has just been jailed for suspected match-fixing last season.
His president at the time, Miguel Archanco, who (normally) lives about 50 metres down from my house, has been let out on bail of half a million euros, but as the news continues to grow over this case, and the list of people involved expands, it may be a week or so before we know the full details of the case.
— Luisja (@luisja_7) March 7, 2015
Suffice to mention – at this stage – that this is actually the first time in the history of La Liga that someone has been jailed for alleged match-fixing.
Early claims suggest the investigation will turn up all sorts of gems from last season’s messy relegation struggle, in which Osasuna failed to stay up.
It’s all juicy stuff, but the poor Osasuna supporters must be wondering what has hit them. In an ironic twist, they visited Racing Santander on Saturday in Segunda ‘A’, in a game that pitted them against another side that has also been involved in multiple financial scandals in the last three seasons, although not of a match-fixing nature.
Racing are still not out of the woods, but they beat Osasuna 2-0 in the duel of the dungeon teams, condemning their visitors to their fifth consecutive defeat. With players unpaid and the club in turmoil, Osasuna’s form is hardly surprising.
The fall-out from this case, however, may cast La Liga in a rather poor light. This is because Valladolid, Betis, Espanyol and Getafe – all of whom were involved in games that directly influenced the relegation spots both last season and the season before – stand accused of receiving ‘financial motivation’ from Osasuna. Watch this space, as they say.