No prizes for guessing the weekend’s theme. Before the Christmas break, the priority was to take a rest accompanied by the feel-good factor of a win, to usher in the New Year with optimism. Barcelona finished 2014 with a 5-0 stroll at home to Cordoba, and had won five of their past six league games; Real Madrid had taken an early break to Morocco, to win a fairly undemanding Club World Cup and extend their consecutive run of wins to 22, two short of the world record set by the Brazilian side Coritiba in 2011. Real Madrid hadn’t lost since September 13, when they succumbed to neighbours Atlético, but maybe it was all beginning to look a bit too good. Besides, the fixture list for the return of action in 2015 was potentially problematic for the two leaders, with Real Madrid visiting a resurgent Valencia, and Barcelona travelling to Real Sociedad, where they had lost three of their last four encounters.
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And problematic it proved. Real Madrid were hustled and hassled out of their stride by a Valencia team who were hungrier on the day. It had been five years since Los Blancos lost in the Mestalla stadium, on its day a noisy and hostile arena that can unnerve the best of teams, but in recent seasons the club’s off-field problems had begun to eat away at the essence of the place, with a succession of top players departing every summer to pay the debts – not even to balance the books. But somehow the club always bounces back, and has put together a fast and aggressive side, with new star Paco Alcácer the pick of the bunch and Alvaro Negredo an able supporter, when he picks up on fitness and form. Sofiane Feghouli, Antonio Barragán and Dani Parejo are all fine players and this 2-1 win will have them believe they can make the Champions League next season, to make up for their disappointing 8th-place finish last campaign.
Things didn’t look too good for them when Cristiano Ronaldo converted a penalty in the 13th minute after a handball by Negredo, and after escaping a couple of times thereafter, Valencia turned it around in the second half with goals from Barragán and Otamendi. Real Madrid now face a testing week, with a visit across town on Wednesday night to the Calderon to face Atlético in the Copa del Rey. If they lose there, the press might even imply that a new crisis has begun at the Bernabéu, due to complacency, conspiracies or the weather. One hopes not. So far, the season has been fairly healthy in that respect, and with two games left before the official half-way stage it’s hard to talk of a two-horse race, with Atlético in rude health, Valencia bubbling up steam and Sevilla still well placed. Only six points separate the top five teams, despite leaders Real Madrid’s record run, although like Sevilla they have a game in hand.
Atlético themselves are only one point from the top, and are making a decent job of defending their title. Their 3-1 win over Levante on Saturday was hardly news, but it confirmed the good vibrations of their final win of 2014, the 4-1 beating of Athletic Bilbao at the new San Mames with a hat-trick from Antoine Griezmann, who followed matters up this weekend with a brace against Levante. All this was played out to the background of the return of the prodigal son, Fernando Torres, whose presentation at the Calderon on Sunday attracted a crowd of 45,000 people! It must be some kind of record, and you have to wonder if they had nothing better to do, but both their optimism and their faith in Torres must be applauded. It should certainly help the striker’s confidence, and make him feel loved – something that has been missing from his life in recent years. Of all the great mysteries of the world, Torres’ fall from grace remains the most inexplicable.
It has become the holy grail of all football analysts to explain this phenomenon, although the present author attracted widespread criticism for daring to suggest that the player was overrated when he last wore the Atlético shirt, way back in 2007. I stick by my guns, although subsequently Torres looked a fine player at Liverpool, particularly when Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso (in their prime) were feeding him. It may be that the 45,000 who turned up at the Calderon on Sunday are simply unaware of his club record since Anfield, but you can’t fault their enthusiasm.
— Fernando Torres (@Torres) January 4, 2015
Interestingly, both the scorers (Griezmann and Godin) enacted the ‘bowman’ celebration, made famous at the Calderon first by Kiko Narvaez and then by his boyhood fan, Torres himself. Torres’ presence in the stadium on Saturday against Levante would seem to have been the reason for the bowman gestures, but whether they were meant as a homage or a warning (particularly from Griezmann) remains to be seen. The Frenchman is now the top scorer, and with ‘Super’ Mario Mandzukic also playing well, it’s hard to see Torres getting a look in. It will be interesting, nevertheless, to see if he is thrown into the action during Wednesday night’s cup tie, lending an already attractive game an extra element. Four days later, Atlético travel to Barcelona, which should be equally interesting given the events of this weekend.
I was in Anoeta to see the Real Sociedad v Barcelona game, and had hardly settled in my seat when Jordi Alba nodded Sergio Canales’ cross into his own net. Approaching the stadium five minutes earlier, I had commented to my son that for the last few seasons, the wins over Barcelona had all been fabricated after conceding early goals and then storming to a comeback. ‘Let them score first’ I suggested, but was nevertheless enthused by the beginning. I was less enthused by the presence of Leo Messi and Neymar on the bench – apparently due to their later arrivals from the Christmas break – because although you think you have a chance when they’re not playing, it’s really them that you’ve turned up to see. Of course, with the scoreline 1-0 at half-time, it was inevitable that Messi would appear for the second half, and he was followed 20 minutes later by Neymar, as the Catalans became increasingly desperate in their attempts to break down the host’s defensive wall – more solid these days after the arrival of manager David Moyes. Indeed, this kind of win will help Moyes to believe that he has made the right choice in coming to Spain to re-ignite his managerial career – a bold if somewhat risky move for a manager who is very British both in outlook and experience. But this win represents a major scalp for him, and should help to kick-start Sociedad’s disappointing season so far.
Barcelona deserved more, to be honest, but despite some exquisite approach play in the first half, they rarely carved out clear-cut chances. The Madrid-born referee, Carlos Del Cerro Grande, strangely enough tried his best to help the Catalans’ cause, and really should simply have pulled a Barcelona shirt on and come clean, but Real Sociedad hung on heroically, despite playing against twelve men. Real Madrid must have breathed a sigh of relief at the result, and the defeat will not lighten the mood at the Camp Nou, with some rumblings of discontent about Luis Enrique’s management (he will inevitably be condemned for leaving his two best players on the bench) and the blow of the ban on signing players until January 2016, ratified last week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
So, as the New Year kicks in, ‘hay liga’ (it’s still wide open) – as they say here. Real Madrid will try to use the defeat as a wake-up call against any feelings of complacency, and Barcelona will need to plan very carefully for next week’s test against Atlético. And our good friends Eibar, 2-1 winners at Espanyol, will dream that they can reach those European places and continue to defy the laws of the cosmos. It’s all warming up nicely.