Phil Ball: Madrid equal Barca's record in style

Phil Ball 9/01/2017
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It’s been a busy week in La Liga, with the last sixteen in the King’s Cup playing their first-leg games in a sudden tsunami of action in midweek, followed by a full league programme after the relative calm of the Christmas period. The cup games provided various talking points, the most prominent of which was the furore surrounding Athletic Bilbao’s 2-1 defeat of Barcelona in the new San Mames, prompting Gerard Pique to declare that his team would prefer to take part in sport as opposed to ‘roulette’ – a phrase that will probably earn him some kind of sanction. Nevertheless, Messi’s second-half goal in Bilbao should be enough to see Barcelona through in the second leg, but before that game (this coming week) they were forced to visit high-flying Villarreal on Sunday night – hardly a comfy fixture given the current circumstances, with Luis Enrique under focus in the Spanish press for not confirming that he will continue next season, and Real Madrid equalling his record of 39 games undefeated with Barcelona last season.

Real Madrid equalled the record in some style, beating struggling Granada at home 5-0 and scoring four in the opening half hour – this after also defeating Sevilla 3-0 in midweek in the King’s Cup. The Bernabéu is a happy arena at the moment, which is another reason for Barcelona’s hearts to sink. Neither of the big two derives happiness from their rival’s good times, and should Madrid avoid defeat in Sevilla in midweek, their media acolytes will move into major chest-beating mode.  It wasn’t a white Christmas here in Spain, but the new year is looking decidedly meringue-tinted. Even James Rodriguez (who scored twice against Sevilla) is smiling.

James Rodriguez.

James Rodriguez.

Well actually, there’s a bit more to it than that.  Having returned from a Christmas visit to the UK where Premier League games seemed to be played day and night non-stop, I was able to see the ‘other three’ sides making waves this season, all in the space of four days.  On Wednesday night I saw Real Sociedad pick Villarreal apart in a highly entertaining cup encounter, the Basques running out 3-1 winners.  Villarreal gave away two rather soft goals – something not typical of their play this season (they have the best defence in La Liga – only twelve goals conceded so far), but it was clear why they’re doing well again, and the excellent football that both sides produced was a fair reflection of why they are both hovering around the Champions League spots.   Villarreal can still turn the second leg around this week, but seemed to be slightly distracted by the imminent visit of Barcelona to their newly-named stadium, christened ‘El Estadio de La Cerámica’ (The Ceramic Stadium) hours before the match.

Villarreal is a small town in the Valencian Community of around 50,000 inhabitants, and by the looks of it, entertainment – apart from the football club – is in short supply.  Thus were the natives advised to get along early to the game so that they could witness the dramatic revealing of the new name. The stadium has been called ‘El Madrigal’ since 1923 but the club’s directors had decided to honour seven local firms, all of them linked to the ceramics sector, and all of them financial contributors to the club’s coffers. That’s a sensible gesture these days, and Villarreal have always practiced good husbandry, but you wonder whether the name will stick. There are worse, but not many.

Lionel Messi and Neymar celebrate after Barcelona score an equaliser in stoppage time.

Lionel Messi and Neymar celebrate after Barcelona score an equaliser in stoppage time.

Nobody seemed to care too much anyway, since the hosts almost won a breathless game, Leo Messi replying to Nicola Sansone’s 58th minute strike with another wonder free-kick at the last gasp. Villarreal stay fifth, a point behind Atlético who won 2-0 up at Eibar, but Barcelona are now five points adrift of Madrid, with a game more played. They can’t afford many more slip-ups, and meanwhile Sevilla are bursting out of the blocks, despite the 3-0 defeat in midweek in the Bernabéu. They were the other team I got to see in the flesh in the space of four days in Anoeta, and duly rolled up early at 20.15 on a freezing Saturday night with my son – not because the stadium was about to be renamed but rather because Real Sociedad’s insurer, ‘Reale Seguros’ had made the rash promise that if their team scored three or more goals against Valencia back in mid-December, they would serve a free hot-dog to all club members before the game. Unable to resist this rush of generosity, we joined the queue in the freezing dark outside the stadium, like homeless urchins deprived of food for weeks. To entertain us as we waited in the massed ranks (22,000 hot dogs were served up), a self-appointed comedian from somewhere inside the blue tent from where the food was emerging decided to announce that if Real Sociedad scored three against Sevilla, the mass feeding would be repeated at the next home game. Unwisely he hollered into the microphone ‘Y eso sí es seguro – tan seguro como Reale Seguros!’  (And this is a certainty – as sure as Reale Insurers!).

The rest, as they say, was a reality check.  The hot dogs were fine (with a bit of mustard and ketchup), but the game less so, at least from the home side’s point of view. Sevilla won 4-0, but it could have been more. They were mightily impressive, and although Sociedad have an occasional tendency to lose big (whilst otherwise picking up points), they were simply out-thought tactically and bullied into submission by Sevilla’s greater strength. There’ll be no more hot dogs for a while, it would seem, and Sociedad’s good batch of results came to a sudden and brutal halt. Sevilla unplugged their Christmas lights and stole their cheer. It could have been due to the absence of David Zurutuza in Sociedad’s midfield, or to the fact that the coach Eusebio used the same starting eleven from the game against Villarreal four days previously  (Sevilla made five changes from the Real Madrid tie), but Sevilla looked the best side I’ve seen this season. They are second, a point ahead of Barcelona and four shy of Madrid, but their next two games are interesting, to say the least.  On Thursday in the cup they might just decide that the three-goal deficit isn’t worth the bother, and put out a semi-reserve side to give the younger players experience.  You certainly wouldn’t expect Real Madrid to blow the La Liga all-time record of 40 games undefeated in such circumstance, but they’ll need to ensure the feat on Thursday because three nights later they return to Sevilla for a league match which might have some bearing on the direction of the title this season, almost at the half-way stage.

If Sevilla are serious about the league title this season, then next weekend is their chance to truly present their credentials.  On Saturday in Anoeta the star was the Frenchman Ben Yedder with a hat-trick (that’s 15 goals for the season so far), but there were other equally impressive performances. Nzonzi strolls around the centre picking up everything, calm and imperious. Samir Nasri suddenly looks good again, drifting cleverly between the ‘hole’ and a striker’s position. Sociedad never got to grips with him. Franco Vasquez ran the game, determining the pace and rhythm, but the side has no fissures, no obvious weaknesses.  They played six across midfield, and hunted the home players in packs, never letting anyone settle on the ball. They knocked Sociedad out of their orbit, and were the first side this season (save Real Madrid on the opening day) to make them look ordinary.  It’s difficult to see how Sevilla lost at Granada, and had they not, they’d be really breathing down Madrid’s necks by now.  Jorge Sampaoli’s got a good thing going there. Watch out – the league might just have some twists and turns in store, and they might start this week, in the Sánchez Pizjuan.

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La Liga: Best playmakers in final third

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Maestros with the ball at their feet.

Passing is a key ingredient to score a team goal and making accurate passes in the final third of the pitch is often the difference between winning and losing.

But, making precise one-twos, quick passes and one-touch lobs over the defence line is an art form not many footballers are adept at.

However, this comprehensive list by WhoScored gives us an idea of the most creative players in the Spanish top flight.

From Atletico’s central midfield star Koke to Barcelona legend Lionel Messi and his partner in crime Neymar, these are the players with the most successful passes in the final third this season.

Has anyone on this list surprised you?

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

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10 potential January La Liga transfers

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There will be no shortage of cash lavished on top stars during the January transfer window and here, Sport360 has rounded-up 10 players who could be on the move this New Year.

Which of these players are most likely to leave?

Join the conversation and let Sport360 know your thoughts – get in touch using #360fans on Twitter and Facebook.

1. JOAO CANCELO (Valencia) to Barcelona – €30 million

With Alex Vidal failing to perform as Dani Alves’s replacement, Barcelona have been forced to use Sergi Roberto, a central midfielder by trade, as their right-back. Although Sergi has filled in admirably, Luis Enrique is expected to dive into the transfer market for reinforcements with Cancelo believed to be at the top of his wishlist.

It’s not hard to see why either as he’s been impressive since coming on loan from Benfica (he has since moved permanently to Valencia) and has already received four caps for Portugal since August, scoring three goals.

The only hold up in any potential deal is that Los Che sporting director Suso Pitarch has recently been quoted saying that Cancelo has ruled out a move until at least the summer. With Sergi playing well, could they hold off until then?

Probability meter: 4/10

Joao Cancelo.

Joao Cancelo.

2. JAMES RODRIGUEZ (Real Madrid) to Chelsea – €89 million

When James moved to Real Madrid in 2014, he was considered the new crown jewel in a Galactico line-up that included Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Isco. After a strong start, the Colombian international has been plagued by injury and inconsistent form.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has so far quelled any notion of James leaving, repeatedly stating that he is an integral part of his first-team plans. Bale’s recent injury was expected to allow James to shine, but the Colombian has failed to make use of his opportunity.

If James was to leave, the reported fee would normally be a stumbling block for any team, especially in January, but Chelsea could be in a unique situation to purchase the midfielder should Oscar’s transfer to China go through.

Probability meter: 9/10

James Rodriguez.

James Rodriguez.

3. GEOFFREY KONDOGBIA (Inter Milan) to Valencia – €21 million

Kondogbia has fallen way down the pecking order since joining Inter Milan and is said to be available during the transfer window. Chelsea and Liverpool are reportedly interested in securing his services, with some believing the free transfer of John Obi Mikel to Marseille will free up the necessary room for Chelsea to make a bid for the French international.

With N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic potential obstacles to the starting line-up, Kondogbia may perhaps be better off going to Valencia where he would have a secure starting role and could potentially help Los Che out of the relegation zone.

Probability meter: 5/10

4. EDUARDO CARVALHO (Chelsea) to Atletico Madrid – undisclosed

Eduardo was a part of Portugal’s Euro 2016 winning team and moved to Chelsea on a one-year deal during the summer from Dinamo Zagreb. Behind both Thibaut Courtois and Asmir Begovic, he is yet to make an appearance this season but Diego Simeone may offer him an escape.

With Atletico keeper Jan Oblak believed to be injured for four months with a shoulder injury, Simeone’s men are in need for a steady presence between the sticks while they challenge in both La Liga and Champions League competitions.

Probability meter: 7/10

5. DARIJO SRNA (Shakhtar Donetsk) to Barcelona – undisclosed

The 34-year-old right-back is still considered one of the most solid defenders in Europe despite his age. With Barcelona unhappy with Vidal, the possibility of bringing in Srna could be the perfect option while they wait to make a move for Cancelo next summer.

Pep Guardiola is also said to be interested, having tried to sign the former Croatia captain for Bayern Munich and Barcelona during his tenures at both clubs. Srna may rescind his contract to facilitate this move and, with his Champions League eligibility, the possibility becomes even more intriguing to Barcelona.

Probability meter: 8/10

6. LIONEL MESSI (Barcelona) to Hebei China Fortune – €250 million

OK OK OK. So this is about as far-fetched as Guardiola leaving to coach in China this summer but the numbers being reported are just astronomical and can’t be ignored.

Coached by ex-Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, the Chinese Super League side are said to be offering the Argentine captain an incredible €100 million a year after-tax salary.

This has come on the heels of a reported breakdown in contract negotiations between Messi and Barcelona over wages, although one would expect that even these life-changing numbers wouldn’t quite turn Messi’s career path to the Far East.

Probability meter: 1/10

Lionel Messi.

Lionel Messi.

7. STEVEN N’ZONZI (Sevilla) to Manchester City – €30 million

The French international has been incredible so far this season with Juventus, Chelsea and Manchester City all highly impressed with the bruising midfielder.

Although he is cup-tied for the Champions League, the loss of Ilkay Gundogan has seen Guardiola search for replacements and it appears he has earmarked N’Zonzi, while a reported release clause of only €30 million is not likely to give Manchester City pause.

Chelsea’s interest (Conte may see him as a more dynamic option than Nemanja Matic) and Gundogan’s return before the summer may deter him, but Guardiola and Manchester City are rarely refused.

Probability meter: 6/10

Steven N'Zonzi.

Steven N’Zonzi.

8. BOJAN KRKIC (Stoke City) to Valencia – €3 million

Needing an attacking boost after suffering their worst start to a season since 1986, Valencia have contacted Stoke regarding the availability of former Barcelona prodigy Bojan. The striker is thought to be keen on a move away from England despite just signing a contract extension until 2020.

Bojan had a strong start to his career in the Premier League before suffering a devastating knee injury, although he returned fit again last season to help The Potters reach the League Cup semi-final and achieve a 9th place league finish.

Probability meter: 5/10

9. DANI PAREJO (Valencia) to Southampton – €20 million

The Los Che player has been plagued by a loss of form, although interest remains high with Inter Milan, Sevilla and Monaco reported to have inquired about the creative central midfielder.

Valencia coach Cesare Prandelli has expressed frustration with Parejo and has hinted at his availability in the winter transfer after a number of off-field issues.

Probability meter: 8/10

10. INAKI WILLIAMS (Athletic Bilbao) to Liverpool – €53 million

Interest may have cooled in recent weeks, but it is believed the Bilbao striker is the number one target of Jurgen Klopp. The striker has been compared to Borussia Dortmund star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and is on the fringes of the Spain squad.

The reported buy-out clause of €53 million is massive, although Klopp believes that his tantalising potential on the front line could be well worth the purchase as potential boon for this year and Liverpool’s future.

Probability meter: 3/10

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