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.
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.
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.