Well, at least Real Madrid won the King’s Cup playing basketball on Sunday night. On Sunday afternoon their 1-1 draw at Málaga – hardly a surprise given the home team’s recent form and Real Madrid’s midweek distraction in Rome – would seem to have condemned them to another league-less season. Perhaps it’s just time that they got used to it, and went about building their team in a different way, with a different set of expectations. But hell will probably freeze over before that happens. Meanwhile, Barcelona march on – not as convincingly as they have in past seasons perhaps, but as Luis Enrique commented a few weeks ago, ‘If we’re not beating teams by massive scores every week it seems as if we’re doing something wrong’. Indeed, it was a good point to make, and it was directed at the Spanish media in general, not the Barcelona fans and local press. And once again, Barcelona took all three points after a scrappy display at Las Palmas earned them a 2-1 win, but therein lies the difference between their season and that of their traditional rival. Madrid have not ‘won ugly’ quite enough times this season, drawing away at Betis and Valencia quite recently, and losing at Villarreal and Sevilla. The margin for error is so small in La Liga these days that it is this kind of game that determines the destination of the league title, not the clásico or the Madrid derby. Thus with thirteen games remaining, it seems like it’s unlucky for some.
Barcelona brought about this day of reckoning with two ugly wins in the space of five days. As predicted in this column last week (and it was hardly rocket science) the Catalans won their game in hand 3-1 at Sporting on Wednesday night, with a brace from Leo Messi taking him to the 301 mark in league goals. That’s 439 in all competitions, or exactly 450 if you take his thirty-two appearances in the 3rd and 2nd Divisions into account. His team now lead 3rd-placed Real Madrid by 9 points, and no team in the history of La Liga has managed to cut back such a distance of points with thirteen games remaining. Add to that the double-whammy fact that Madrid must still visit the Camp Nou and host Atlético next week in the Bernabéu, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to state that they might be better off concentrating their energies on the Champions League. They played effectively in Rome on Tuesday night, benefitting from a wonderful opening goal from Cristiano Ronaldo and probably guaranteeing their passage into the next round with their eventual 2-0 win. But the remaining opposition looks as strong as ever. Then again, Barcelona’s attractive-looking visit to Arsenal on Tuesday night might give Madrid a flicker of hope, as might Juventus’ tie with Bayern the same evening.
Atlético themselves are only faring slightly better in the league, drawing 0-0 at home to 4th- placed Villarreal and leaving Barcelona 8 points clear. They may well have had this Wednesday’s Champions League fixture at PSV on their minds, and although their astonishing defensive record remains intact, a lack of goals scored this season has proved their Achilles Heel. Still – take nothing away from them. In a normal league, without the extra-terrestrial talents of Barcelona, their achievements would be earning them greater reward. They may yet surprise people in the Champions League. They’re a very difficult nut to crack, and are an intimidating prospect for teams who do not know them so well.
Returning to the league programme, next weekend sees the beginning of an intense period of games, with a full set of fixtures scheduled for the midweek days of March 1st and 2nd. Three games in the space of seven days will see the map finally spread out and the Eurozone and the relegation places more clearly configured. That said, it’s difficult to imagine any teams breaking into the current top four. Villarreal’s consistency is such that you wouldn’t expect them to blow the 8-point gap that exists between them and 5th-placed Sevilla, and besides, there is no side that seems to have the wherewithal to breach that gap. Sevilla are putting together a half-decent season, but their inability to win away remains a disabling factor. 2-0 up at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, they failed to hang onto the lead and had to settle for a 2-2 draw. It seems almost bizarre that a team can be in fifth place in the league without winning a single away game all season, but that’s how it is. It suggests that teams putting together a decent run now, such as Real Sociedad, can still aspire to a Europa League place.
Sociedad won the Basque derby at the new San Mames in an intense but scrappy game, resolved by a first-half belter from Jonathas. It was an ill-tempered affair, with thirteen players booked, but the result was Real’s fourth consecutive win, lifting them to 9th spot in the table and out of the gloom into which they had descended with David Moyes at the helm. The three Basque sides now occupy the league’s 7th, 8th and 9th positions, with Eibar still leading the pack. Eibar lost 3-2 up at Celta on Saturday night but are still the proud owners of 36 points, one more than they managed last season and therefore a club record. Despite recent wobbles, it seems unlikely that last season’s collapse will be repeated, and that they will continue to scrap for a European place with their two more illustrious and richer neighbours.
Nevertheless, the game at San Mames on Sunday evening was yet again proof of a healthier side to football, if only we remember to acknowledge it. Eighteen of the twenty-two players in the starting line-ups were products of the two teams’ youth systems. It’s almost impossible for such a scenario to be repeated now in any European league, at any professional level. Real Sociedad have sprinkled their squad with foreign players, it’s true, but their youth system continues to churn out top players, from a region (Gipuzkoa) with a mere 700,000 population.
GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! Jonathas scores the opening!! 0-1 ATHvRSO pic.twitter.com/LN5Uf5PTOk— Real Sociedad (@RealSociedadEN) February 21, 2016
Watching youngsters like Aritz Elustondo and Mikel Oyarzabal developing so quickly to compete at this level you simply wonder why other teams, with far more resources and larger hinterlands to draw from, cannot do it. Five of the six players who came on as subs were also youth products. Real Madrid started with three youth products in their starting line-up, although only one of them (Dani Carvajal) is a consistent first-team performer. Nacho and Jesé Rodriguez are still struggling to find a real footing. Does cheque book-planning really justify this curious neglect of local talent? The Madrid autonomous community has a population of 6.5 million. Its flagship clubs (Atlético fare no better in this regard) should be doing more to nurture and develop local talent because in the end, that’s what the folks really want.
Elsewhere, Levante gave themselves some hope with a rare 3-0 win at home to Getafe. José Luis Morales’ first goal is a cracker, and worth checking out. Granada sank to the bottom with their 4th consecutive defeat, 2-1 at home to Valencia, with the latter leaving a smile on Gary Neville’s face for the first time this season. Added to last week’s breaking of his league duck, the team also won 6-0 against not-so-Rapid Vienna in midweek in the Europa League, and the stormy waters around the Mestalla would appear to be calming.
The pick of the bunch next week, apart from the Madrid derby, is Barcelona v Sevilla – always a good game, but conditioned perhaps by the rigours of the Catalans’ trip to London and Sevilla’s trip to Norway on Thursday. The league may be as good as decided, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. Don’t worry!
Atletico Madrid’s hopes of catching Primera Division leaders Barcelona suffered a setback on Sunday evening as they were held to a 0-0 draw by Villarreal at the Vicente Calderon.
Diego Simeone’s side were shut out by the visitors’ rock-solid defence and could carve out barely any clear chances, and ended the weekend eight points behind Barca – who also have a superior head-to-head record – with 13 games remaining.
The result also saw Marcelino’s men record a fifth straight clean sheet in all competitions. They still occupy the fourth Champions League spot, eight points ahead of nearest rivals Sevilla.
This was the meeting of the two tightest defences in La Liga – two teams that had conceded just 29 goals between them in 50 matches.
The visitors appealed for a penalty in the second minute as Castillejo went to ground after competing with Saul Niguez for the ball, but few other openings appeared in a first half high on pressure and intensity but low on attractive football.
Villarreal defender Daniele Bonera caught a rare sight of goal on the half-hour mark, volleying over the bar, while Atletico’s first chance did not arrive until right before half-time, Antoine Griezmann’s flicked header narrowly failing to hit the target.
Atletico midfielder Angel Correa was the first to create a real opportunity, turning a defender in the area before attempting to lob Alphonse Areola, but the goalkeeper tipped the shot over the bar.
Correa also went close to creating the opener for Fernando Torres, who was just centimetres away from connecting with the Argentinian’s low cross and tapping in.
Villarreal were conceding possession to Atletico but launched a quick counter, resulting in Cedric Bakambu racing into the area alone, but the Congolese fluffed the shot. Minutes later he tried to get on the end of Denis Suarez’s cross to the near post, but Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak got there first.
Simeone threw on Oliver Torres and former Villarreal striker Luciano Vietto late in the second half in the hope of unlocking the visitors. The latter had Atletico’s final chance to win it in stoppage time, but shot into the side-netting from a tight angle.
Madrid remain nine points behind Barca with 13 games to go after Raul Albentosa cancelled out Ronaldo’s opener 24 minutes from time.
However, Zinedine Zidane’s men were left to rue Ronaldo’s miss from the spot to make it 2-0 before the break when Carlos Kameni dived to his left to parry the three-time World Player of the Year’s effort.
A point moves Real level with Atletico Madrid in second ahead of the Madrid derby next weekend, but Atletico can move to within six points of Barca with victory over Villarreal later on Sunday.
Madrid were without the injured Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, whilst James Rodriguez was only left on the bench by Zidane.
When the opening goal did arrive it was in controversial circumstances as Ronaldo headed home Toni Kroos’s free-kick despite clearly standing in an offside position.
There was no doubt about the penalty award two minutes later when Ronaldo was brought down by Weligton.
Yet, the normally lethal Portuguese from the spot was denied by a fine low save by Kameni.
Madrid stopper Keylor Navas was finally beaten when Malaga’s two centre-backs combined for the equaliser as Weligton’s low cross was coolly slotted home at the back post by Albentosa.
Malaga could even have snatched all three points as Navas was again forced into action by a looping Charles header.
However, for the second time this season Malaga did enough to take a point from Real and almost certainly stretch their run without a league title to four years.