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1. SERGI ROBERTO (BARCELONA) – 7.5
The attacking full-back was one of the few bright lights for Barcelona as the Catalan giants limped to a 1-0 victory over Granada.
Rafinha got the only goal in the second-half but Roberto was a constant source of ammunition for Luis Enrique’s men throughout.
2. YANNICK CARRASCO (ATLETICO MADRID) – 7.4
The 23-year-old hit a brace, opening and sealing the scoring, as Atletico beat Malaga 4-1.
Carrasco has been in fine form for Diego Simeone’s men on the flank this term, with the win cementing their position in third spot in La Liga – just three points behind city rivals Real.
3. CRISTIANO RONALDO (REAL MADRID) – 7.4
Did anyone ever doubt him?
The Los Blancos legend powered in a hat-trick against Alaves, and even had time to miss a penalty, as Real Madrid increased their lead at the top of La Liga.
Great win and very important 3 points. Well done boys !!⚽️⚽️⚽️🔝 pic.twitter.com/Vv2NFO0rSt— Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) October 29, 2016
4. JONATHAN VIERA (LAS PALMAS) – 7.3
The Spanish attacker scored a penalty in Las Palmas’ eventful 3-3 draw with Celta Vigo.
Viera is helping the Gran Canaria outfit enjoy a good season in the top flight.
5. IAGO ASPAS (CELTA VIGO) – 7.3
The ex-Liverpool frontman scored a brace in Celta Vigo’s thrilling draw with Las Palmas.
Aspas tormented the Canary Islanders and in truth the Sky Blues done enough to win the game.
Various Spanish journalists concurred at the beginning of the season that this campaign would see the top sides more challenged, and less likely to run away with the league. In recent years, they have scored freely and strolled through routine games until the more serious business arose of having to occasionally play each other. The three teams referred to are of course Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, with sporadic appearances from Sevilla and Villarreal. Let’s look at how well the theory is standing up, after ten games.
The five sides cited above occupy the first five positions, with the usual culprits, Real Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona in the first three places, in that order. No surprises there then, except that Sevilla and Villarreal (in 4th and 5th) are well within shirt-tugging distance. Sevilla, particularly, are only 3 points behind leaders Real Madrid and would be sitting in second place now had they not slipped up at Sporting. Luciano Vietto (on loan from Atlético) set them up nicely with a 4th minute goal, but Moi Gomez equalised 15 minutes later, and the score stayed the same. Sporting looked a poor side at Granada last weekend, but were still good enough to hold their guests to a draw, and looking at Sevilla’s recent record you can’t help but notice that a draw at Eibar and a defeat at Bilbao are not the kind of results that elevate you to the status of title contenders. It seems a tough verdict, but that’s the way it goes in La Liga, unless of course you subscribe to the theory that Sevilla, as marginal contenders, are themselves being held back by the general quality that stalks the places below them.
We might say the same of Villarreal, a team capable of excellent football almost every season, but who lost 2-1 at Eibar on Sunday in perhaps the weekend’s surprise result. Since Eibar’s creditable draw at the Bernabéu, things haven’t been going too well, both on and off the pitch. Villarreal probably fancied their chances of moving into the top three, but like Sevilla, after taking the initiative and opening the score, they were pegged back later on.
Next week, the side in 6th place, Real Sociedad, play Atlético Madrid in Anoeta, and in a sense the fixture plays host to the confirmation or negation of the theory. Sociedad began a little inconsistently, but are beginning to look as though they might be in for a decent season. Atlético have a good record in Anoeta, but they’ll need to have the dagger between their teeth (quote Simeone) and be rested from this Tuesday’s Champions League game at home to Rostov if they don’t want their challenge to stutter.
You have to say that of the five alleged title contenders, they still look the scariest, the side least likely to falter. As Zinedine Zidane said of his own side on Saturday ‘To win the league you have to suffer’ and Atlético do have the occasional wobble – but again you could argue that Saturday’s hard-fought 4-2 home win over Málaga was further evidence of the democracy theory of this season, that La Liga is genuinely more competitive. The home cause wasn’t helped by Savic’s sending-off after the hour mark, a circumstance which enabled Málaga to bring the score back to 3-2 and threaten an upset, but Yannick Carrasco put paid to that with a fine individual goal in the 86th minute.
Talking of Carrasco, the balance has shifted in the Atlético paradigm. Since Diego Simeone took over, the team has characterised its approach by focusing on steely defence and efficient if rather sparse attacking ideas. However, whereas this season the defence remains the best in the league (only 6 conceded), the attacking options have suddenly multiplied. Carrasco is now the club’s top scorer with seven in all competitions, and Kevin Gameiro is beginning to add some flint to the gunpowder. He managed two against Málaga and if he gets to anything like his form when with Sevilla, the new combi at Atlético with Antoine Griezmann (who continues to assist even if he doesn’t score) is suddenly looking lethal. This season, at last, Atlético may not need to rely on the old warhorse Fernando Torres, although he’s always a useful enough guy to have on the bench.
Carrasco’s second and Atlético’s fourth is clear evidence of a player on a confidence high, starting his run from well within his own half and then outpacing the retreating Málaga defenders before placing a low and precise shot past Kameni’s right hand. The Belgian has been looking a decent player for a while now, but without the appearance of a real game-changer, of a player who takes a side to another level. Griezmann has become the club’s iconic player, but last season he lacked a consistent accomplice. Now he might have two. If the trident is institutionalised, no doubt they will become the GGC.
In a fortnight, on November 19th, Atlético entertain their neighbours Real Madrid in the Calderón. If they can get a result in Anoeta, the game will be the first major event of the league season, surpassing Atlético’s visit to the Camo Nou in late September. This game will have a greater psychological charge to it, and will force the loser (if there is one) to be even more cautious of the ‘normal’ games to follow.
Indeed, Real Madrid’s 4-1 victory at new boys Alavés in Vitoria was hardly a vintage display, although it could have been down to pre-Europe caution, with a trip to Warsaw on Wednesday night. Alavés played much better than the score suggests, and Madrid only got ahead with a questionable penalty, the ball seeming to hit Deyverson’s head rather than his arm, from Gareth Bale’s free-kick. Madrid’s many apologists in the press were quick to point out that this was the first penalty awarded to them in 28 games, but that still doesn’t mean it was a hand ball. The referee gave them another penalty later on, which Cristiano Ronaldo missed.
However, he was looking happy again, scoring a hat-trick and generally romping about with goal-scoring intent. His goal addiction, however, is not the main debating point regarding Madrid’s chances of silverware this season but rather the issue of when Alvaro Morata will finally confine Karim Benzema to the bench. Benzema is trying, but the triple whammy of the legal case in France, the cold-shoulder he has received from the national side and a general malaise in his play is making Morata’s take-over inevitable. Morata keeps scoring too, which rather strengthens his case. He’s actually the club’s top scorer now, in all competitions, and yet the BBC has not yet become the MBC.
Barcelona, last but not least, were handed a comfy-looking game at home to bottom club Granada, whose general poverty I witnessed in the Andaluz drizzle last weekend. It looked like a potentially embarrassing scoreline, but in fact ended a mere 1-0, with Barcelona again less than impressive. Manchester City await them on Tuesday night, and although the side included Lucas Digne and Denis Suárez, it was hardly a reserve outfit. With Andres Iniesta out for a couple of months, there are plenty of players who can step in (Tiago, Arda Turan), but the balance and the zip sometimes goes, in the great one’s absence.
Whatever, the score cautiously endorses the theory that the big three will not have it all their own way this season, and that La Liga will continue to be more open than in recent seasons. A glance at the English Premier, with one point separating the top four sides, and you can’t help but think that this is what La Liga also needs. It’s always entertaining over here, but a bit of democracy can go a long way.
Its 20.30 on Saturday night and the game starts in fifteen minutes. I’m walking fast through the darkened streets with my earphones and GPS for help, but it’s like one of those nightmares only football nuts ever have, in which you know the game’s about to start but the labyrinthine streets just keep on winding. I ask a likely-looking man if I’m on the right track for Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes, and to my relief he nods. Unplugged from my mobile we zip through the streets in analogue fashion, and I try to thank him by showing some interest in the game to come. ‘Need to win tonight eh?’ I offer, to which he answers in rapid-fire Andaluz that I’ve hit the nail on the head. ‘We lose tonight and we’re in Segunda’ (2nd Division) he insists, staying ahead of me like some keen urban shepherd. At the top of the narrow street a space opens out and Granada’s newish stadium glows up into the night sky, below which the ants are scurrying to their usual places in the nest. I wish my guide luck, weave through the locals and pass though Gate 4, just as the game kicks off.
No matter how many live matches you’ve attended, walking into a new place always freshens the senses. My live experience of La Liga is northern-biased due to where I’ve settled, and so from time to time I like to head south and take in the sensations. This weekend there are some great games going on, Valencia v Barcelona and Sevilla v Atletico, but I’ve decided to watch the dog-eat-dog relegation struggle between bottom placed Granada and Sporting, two places above them. Granada still haven’t won a game this season, and have their collective tail between their legs after last week’s 7-1 reverse in the Calderon, and Sporting have lost their last 5 games on the trot. So it might get a bit ugly – which is all part of the mix.
First time in a new stadium is always better at night. The shock of white light that greets you exaggerates the details, booms out the colours and creates a hyper-real sheen, like an over-painted kids’ play-pen. Games in the day have their charm, but they flatten the light and merge too many horizons. At a night match everything seems important, as if nothing else exists outside of the stadium. My sightline is good – central and quite low, just above the head-height of the players, close to the pitch. The stadium, built in 1995 in a new residential area to the south of the city, looks steeper and more imposing than on the TV, and the crowd looks a decent one, despite the circumstances. Next week Granada travel to Barcelona so they have to win this one, to get back on track. In their 6th successive season in the top flight, their memory of 3rd Division games as recent as 2006 are motivation enough.
The horizontal patterns on their white-red shirts seem fussy and distracting, and make them look too much like a rugby team. Sporting’s simpler black kit with yellow trim looks sleeker and more confident, and although they do nothing of note for the first half hour, their occasional counter-attacks look well-coordinated, with Burgui on the left side looking tricky. Granada’s problems are obvious, and obliged to take the initiative at home, they find themselves too short on quality to do so. The crowd around me encourage at first, but soon begin to complain. Playing with a ‘double pivot’ of Uche and Angban, coach Lucas Alacaraz has gone for muscle in the middle, mindful of last week’s haemorrhage, but neither player seems capable of setting up a move, or of an imaginative pass.
Alcaraz stands expressionless on the edge of his white boxed square, as if looking contemplatively out to sea. In his third spell with the club where he first cut his managerial teeth in 1995, he is quite well-respected on the Spanish scene, but has managed too many clubs (13) to be taken very seriously – also tending to wear an expression which suggests he is suffering from severe depression. As a motivational tool, it’s questionable. Meanwhile, ex-Barcelona man Abelardo paces in front of me with his bald pate shining in the lights. He wears a natty suit with skinny trousers and black trainers, very much in fashion. As Granada’s initial vim begins to fade, the crowd decide to amuse themselves by baiting him. ‘Por qué llevas los leggings de tu mujer Abelardo?’ (Why are you wearing your wife’s leggings?) hollers a wag two rows below me, but Sporting’s coach continues to agonise and swear, frustrated by his side’s inability to take advantage of the poverty of the opposition.
With so much at stake, it seems curious that both sides are so cautious, and they are rightly booed off the park at half-time. Granada have tried, but no-one stands out, no-one catches the eye, except perhaps Andreas Periera, but he’s been starved of the ball. Sporting look competent enough, but caution’s obviously the word. They need to stop the run of defeats.
The last time I was in Granada, ten years ago in late November, it actually snowed – and although it’s too early for such weather the night is nevertheless chilly and damp, and the rain starts to fall as the teams re-emerge. The clichéd view of sunny Spain continues to fade as the locals who have not come prepared with umbrellas put the substantial match programme onto their heads. The players slip and slide, and things go from bad to worse. Suddenly Granada almost score, but Ivan Cuellar tips the ball over the bar magnificently from Rubén Vezo’s header. In the excitement, my neighbour spills his coke drink onto my seat then apologises profusely, producing a startling array of handkerchiefs and tissues to deal with the issue, as if he were prepared for his own clumsiness.
Alcaraz puts on two more forwards as the game progresses, but it never raises the team’s pace from its torpor. Even with the minutes ticking away, the home side still have five men in defence, with the midfield withdrawn. The crowd by this time is baying for blood, and the rain has dislodged half of the 14,000 crowd anyway. The team seems frozen by its own incompetence and in the 93rd minute almost pay for it when the Croatian Duje Cop misses a chance absurdly, not even connecting with the ball as it bobbles across to the far post and presents him with an open goal. As the referee puts the event to bed, both sides look destined to struggle, but especially Granada. The gulf in quality between them and the rest looks enormous. I’m shocked by how poor they’ve been and tell my coke-spilling neighbour as such. He replies with the classic ‘Es lo que hay’ (that’s what we have) and shuffles off into the night.
La Liga's Chinese-owned clubs Granada and Espanyol started season talking about Europe. Way things started both look relegation candidates— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) October 22, 2016
The city is still full of tourists and the Alhambra is booked up until February, so the only hotel I could find was on a kind of industrial estate on the other side of town. An hour after the game, wandering into the bar next door, I’m rewarded with the sound of a fantastic young guitarist and a woman flamenco singer, playing for the locals. The woman sings with unfeasible passion, as if someone has just murdered her mother. The local s stomp and clap and it’s easy to see that the act contains precisely the kind of passion that the football team presently lacks.
The next day, in another part of the region, Sevilla will defeat Atlético Madrid 1-0 and go temporarily top of the table, before being dislodged by Alvaro Morata’s late strike in the Bernabéu against Athletic. With Betis bouncing back too with a 2-1 win up at Osasuna, not all is gloom for Spain’s largest autonomous region. Villarreal moved up to 4th and three points still separate the top five sides. It’s all to play for, but Granada are going to have to perform rather better at the Camp Nou next weekend. Perhaps they should take that guitarist and singer along with them.