Barcelona’s perfect start to the 2015-16 Primera Division season came to an end in emphatic fashion on Wednesday as they crashed to a shock 4-1 defeat at Celta Vigo.
The treble-winners fell behind in the 26th minute when ex-Barca man Nolito notched his fifth goal of the campaign with a superb curling effort from the side of the box.
He then turned provider in the 30th, taking advantage of a Gerard Pique mistake by nodding the ball on to Iago Aspas, who burst forward before coolly chipping over Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The Celta pair combined again for the third on 56 minutes, Nolito once more helping the ball on as the hosts broke away and Aspas keeping calm when clean through to beat Ter Stegen.
And after Neymar pulled an 80th-minute goal back, substitute John Guidetti clipped in three minutes later as unbeaten Celta wrapped up another triumph over their former boss Luis Enrique – his worst league defeat in charge of Barca – to add to the win they registered at the Nou Camp last term.
— barcastuff (@barcastuff) September 23, 2015
Real Madrid later joined Celta on 13 points from five games – and in leapfrogging Barcelona – as Karim Benzema’s brace secured a 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao.
Benzema’s first came in the 19th minute when he pounced upon a woefully under-hit attempted backpass by Mikel San Jose and finished with ease past Gorka Iraizoz.
Athletic were level in the 67th as the unmarked Sabin Merino sent a diving header past Keylor Navas, but three minutes later Benzema tapped in Isco’s cross for his sixth goal in five games in all competitions.
Sergio Ramos is still missing for Real Madrid as they go in search of their first victory at the new San Mames stadium against Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.
Los Blancos’ inspirational captain is almost certainly out after suffering a shoulder injury against Shakhtar Donetsk, while forwards Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez also remain sidelined.
And although Wednesday’s opponents have made a mediocre start to the new campaign, Madrid boss Rafa Benitez has warned his players they will need to be at their very best in a stadium where they have lost and drawn in their previous two outings.
“We will have to be very focused,” said Benitez. “We need to continue doing everything we have until now but also increase our intensity.”
However, Benitez was also keen to emphasise the morale-boosting potential benefits his team could derive from triumphing in one of their most challenging contests of the season.
Madrid have won their last four games without conceding a single goal, and the coach added: “This will be a very difficult game but it could allow us to maintain and even increase our current confidence.”
Once more, Benitez was eager to express his side’s reliance upon Cristiano Ronaldo to be the matchwinner, making it clear that the Portuguese star is regarded as a class apart within the Los Blancos dressing room.
“We have one player whose place goes without discussion, Cristiano, and other good players who are giving their maximum,” he said. “It is a special group and a great team with one player who can make the difference.”
Another receiving plaudits is goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who can surpass the best goalless streak achieved by predecessor Iker Casillas – 460 minutes – if he comes through the opening 10 minutes without conceding.
Benitez said: “I am not obsessed with not conceding goals.
“If we don’t let any in, I’ll be very happy. And if Cristiano scores five, I’ll be very happy about that too. But I only want to win.”
With Ronaldo set to partner Karim Benzema in attack, Benitez’s main selection decision lies in midfield, where Isco is the only player certain to start. In the centre, two from Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic will play, with the latter also competing with Lucas Vazquez for a place on the right flank.
Benitez said: “We have a lot of competition and that can only be good for the team.”
He also downplayed rumours of a rift with Jese, who has been overlooked in recent weeks, adding: “He has been sensational in training this week. There is no issue.”
When Luis Enrique talked up the abilities of tonight’s opponents Celta Vigo, it certainly wasn’t just another case of a manager being polite.
Celta are indeed an extremely dangerous outfit, whose fast-paced approach more than justifies Enrique’s complimentary description of them as “one of the most entertaining teams in Europe”.
He should know, of course, having been largely responsible for kick-starting Celta into their lofty status with a successful campaign in 2013-14, which resulted in a ninth-placed finish in La Liga.
Although Enrique then departed for Barca, last season was even better for Celta as new coach Eduardo Berizzo led the team to eighth.
The summer gone by wasn’t easy, with Celta seeing key performers Michael Krohn-Dehli and Santi Mina depart whilst also crossing their fingers that Nolito, whose form earned him a Spain debut, would not be tempted away.
– La Liga: Barcelona's Enrique hails Celta Vigo's style of play
– RATE, SHARE & WIN: ValoraFutbol Fan Ratings
– La Liga Fans' Top 5: Lionel Messi leads the pack
In the end Nolito stayed, and the departees were replaced by an intriguing batch of new signings including Iago Aspas and versatile Danish international Daniel Wass.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Berizzo remained to maintain the team’s fast and furious style of play, which was first installed by Enrique and therefore bears more than a passing resemblance to Barca’s crisp passing, high-pressing philosophy.
Celta’s record last season against La Liga’s top teams shows just how good they are: they beat Barca at the Nou Camp, beat Atletico at home and drew with them away, and gave Real Madrid a big scare before eventually going down 4-2.
The opening weeks of the new season have been just as promising, and Celta are continuing their ascent towards the European places by heading into tonight unbeaten, in top form and looking to claim another major scalp.