During the press conference after the key Barcelona v Atlético match on Saturday, coach Luis Enrique was asked if he felt that the title was now a mere formality. He replied ‘Queda mucha Liga’ (there’s still a long way to go) which tends to be used here in Spain as a bit of a cliché, and as a way to avoid sounding complacent. Barcelona won 2-1, and as a result moved three points clear of second-placed Atlético, over whom they have the postponed home game against Sporting in hand. But is there really ‘a long way to go’?
With most teams now having played 22 games, there are only 16 left. Such a number invites the first real analysis of what is likely to happen now, both at the top and at the bottom of La Liga. We should also take a look at those aspiring to join the elite from the Second Division.
But it only seems appropriate to begin with the implications of Saturday’s clash between the two top sides in the category. For around half an hour – precisely the moment at which Leo Messi equalised, there was a definite feeling in the air of an upset, if that is the appropriate word. Koke had opened the scoring after ten minutes, and Atlético were doing what they know best how to do – pressing up high on their rivals, stifling the play and releasing their quick-fire forwards on dangerous counters – basically Antoine Griezmann and the excellent Yannick Carrasco, the latter playing in a deeper lying position, bothering Sergio Busquets and forcing him into some uncharacteristic imprecision. Barcelona were failing to cope, and in case it needed stressing any further, there was little thought at that moment for Real Madrid’s chances of ever getting back into the hunt. Atlético were re-staking their claim to being the Catalans’ true rivals, with a team of starless workers (save Griezmann perhaps) all focused on the job in hand. No egos, no complaints. Atlético at their best are like the skeleton crew in the Pirates of the Caribbean – grimly swabbing the decks at midnight with daggers between their teeth. Few of their defenders would make it onto the fashion pages, and if they did, coach Diego Simeone would probably disown them. Juanfran, Diego Godín, Filipe Luis and José Gimenez will never strut the cat-walk, and as the Yorkshire saying goes, you wouldn’t want to meet them down an alley at midnight.
Well, Leo Messi did meet Filipe Luis down the left touchline, and with the score at 2-1 in Barcelona’s favour the Brazilian full-back lifted his left leg rather unwisely as Messi steamed into it, causing the nearby Luis Enrique to go into an apoplectic fit. His complaints were perfectly justified though, and the defender was sent for an early bath. Even then, Atlético looked the better side for periods of the second half, and it was only when Godin was also sent off for a spectacular foul on Luis Suárez that the possibility of stealing a point looked impossible. Barcelona never really looked fluent or confident, but they won. It’s an ominous sign for their pursuers, and with no league defeat now since October, it’s tempting to conclude that with their array of armoury, they can misfire but still win the battles. Suarez’ goal was a lesson in centre-forward play, breaking into space for the ball to be delivered, receiving it and holding off the physical challenge of his compatriot Gimenez to score low past Jan Oblak’s right hand. It’s worth recalling that these two strikes were the first league goals conceded by Atlético in five matches, since Malaga beat them 1-0 in late December. In the five-game run that run, they had only conceded one goal, at home to Athletic Bilbao. It’s a fantastic record, dented twice by Barcelona, who are the only side to score twice (twice) against them this season. The Catalans also won 2-1 in the Calderón back in mid’ September.
In a sense, Atlético’s strength is also their weakness, because their high pressing game is difficult to sustain for 90 minutes, and it tempts some of their rather more fiery players to test out the limits of legality. Filipe Luis’ tackle and Godin’s later on were unnecessary in the context of their moments, and cost Atlético the game and possibly the title. Simeone refused to criticise them in the press conference, but this is the way Atlético prefer to be – reflecting the way their coach played when he was younger and to hell with the consequences. It’s an Atlético thing. They have never sought to be liked, out there on the banks of the Manzanares river. But they also play some decent stuff, and it would be wrong to imply that they were simply physical. Their problem is that they have had to rely too much on Griezmann for goals this season, with Fernando Torres and Jackson Martinez misfiring.
Real Madrid predictably slaughtered Espanyol in the Bernabéu (6-0), with most of the visitors’ forwards missing, either through injury or because they belonged to Real Madrid anyway and were banned from playing by their contractual clauses. Cristiano’s therapeutic hat-trick and James Rodriguez’s improved performance may lead the Madrid press to suggest that the title race is still open, but with the next clásico to be played at the Camp Nou in early April, and a possible seven-point gap to close before that, Zidane’s boys should probably concentrate on the Champions League.
One thing does seem certain, however, and that is that the current four occupants of the Champions League places will probably be there at close of play on May 15th. Villarreal have had an excellent season so far and have now lost only once in their last ten games. Their visit to Atlético in three weeks looks an interesting one, and they remain tucked up in fourth, only three points shy of Real Madrid. More significantly, they have an eight-point lead over Sevilla, in fifth place.
Casting a glance downwards, no team seems statistically moribund as yet. Bottom club Levante have hardly set things alight this season, but they are only four points adrift of Sporting, fourth from the bottom. No team is statistically doomed as yet, and as the bottom sides begin to play better as the panic buttons begin to pulse, teams up to Getafe in 11th place cannot afford to relax. With Sporting and Las Palmas beginning to improve, the teams who look vulnerable to an inopportune collapse look like Getafe, Espanyol, Rayo Vallecano and possibly Granada. Betis, whom I saw play decently at Anoeta on Saturday night – and who probably deserved a point, seem to be playing better under new coach Juan Merino.
However, one team who must now be casting nervous glances at the scene below are Valencia. Their 1-0 home defeat at the hands of an improving Sporting was a game that they had to win, given that new coach Gary Neville had still not broken his league duck. The worst thing for Neville is that his team has now had various reasonable-looking fixtures to sort this out, but they have recently failed to beat Rayo and Getafe too at the Mestalla. They played well against Sporting, but missed a host of easy chances – a point made by Neville in the post-match conference, where he proclaimed himself ‘baffled’ by the result. It was in fact Valencia’s first home defeat of the season, but it leaves them on only 25 points. Real Sociedad, on 24, are still talking openly about the threat of relegation (unlikely, but possible) and so why not Valencia? Neville’s honeymoon period is over, and the Mestalla is getting restless. Relegation would be an absolute disaster in the present financial circumstance, and does not even bear thinking about. To make matters worse, they’ve been drawn in the semi-finals of the cup to Barcelona. Two big games and occasions beckon, but a place in the final would have reduced some of the pressure on Neville.
Alavés, last in the top tier in 2006, lead the Second Division and are looking strong, with Leganés (on Madrid’s outskirts) in second place. Leganés have never played in the top flight, but if Alavés and Osasuna (currently 5th) were to go up, then theoretically all five main Basque teams could occupy the top tier for the first time since the professional league was founded in 1927/28. But perhaps we should end with Simeone’s own words; ‘there’s still a long way to go’.