Phil Ball: Barca, Madrid and Sevilla wins keep La Liga on course for gripping finish

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Sevilla players celebrate after beating Real Betis in La Liga.

The Sevilla vs Leicester fixture in the Champions League last week had me thinking about odd-sounding matches – with the pairing of two names, or two cities, that have about as much in common as Jupiter and Mars. Sevilla won 2-1, ending Claudio Ranieri’s reign at the English club, but the axe had probably already fallen.

The clubs had never met before in their histories,  Leicester having only previously played Atlético Madrid from Spain, but the game offered something new, a change from the recent routine of the Champions League.

The usual suspects are almost always present at this stage, and so  the clash offered up an alternative glimpse as to how the universe might look in another dimension, in a sort of parallel reality.  

It was also interesting how destiny had paired these two clubs at this precise moment.  Leicester are by no means out of the tie, Jamie Vardy’s away goal providing cause for optimism, but having won the most unusual campaign in recent English football history last season, they find themselves in the relegation places.

The media, in general, seem rather less surprised by this turn of events, and Leicester could become the second side to win the league title in England and be relegated the following campaign – Man City being the first in 1938.

Folks were certainly more surprised at Ranieri’s sacking, the coach having become something of a cult figure in England, but the realpolitik of top-flight football these days, with relegation viewed as an apocalyptic (financial) disaster, condemned the Italian.

The sacking has probably come too soon for  Deportivo de La Coruña’s purposes, with coach Gaizka Garitano hanging on by a thread as this column was written on Monday morning.

His likely successor is the old warhorse Pepe Mel, but if Ranieri wants to return to La Liga (he last trod these shores in 2005, in Valencia) he would be made very welcome. There will be plenty of sackings to come before the final game on May 21st.

Claudio Ranieri.

Claudio Ranieri.

Sevilla, on the other hand, are in a euphoric state. If they can survive the trip to Leicester on March 14th they will be into the quarter-finals for the first time since 1958, back then in the old European Cup.

Five-times serial winners of the Europa League – they won the last three consecutive tournaments – they seem to be building up a head of steam to go as far as possible in the bigger competition this season, and for a brief period at the weekend, they led La Liga, level on points with Real Madrid whose game at Villarreal was destined to be the big match on Sunday night.

The Andaluz derby is always an emotive affair, but Betis haven’t won it at home since 2006 and although they opened the scoring and dominated the first half, Sevilla showed their credentials by coming back in the second half and nicking it with a goal from Vicente Iborra, albeit returning from an offside position.   

In Jorge Sampaoli, Sevilla seem to have found the coach they really wanted, despite Unai Emery’s European successes with the club. The fans never quite warmed to Emery, but they seem to love Sampaoli, another from the Bielsa school whose physical presence on the touchline – all hellfire and histrionics – seems to connect better with the club’s culture. Are they serious title contenders?

It sounds like the question that was asked ceaselessly of Leicester last season at this very stage. The two clubs are otherwise chalk and cheese, but share the interesting feat of having each won the league title only once in their entire histories.

Now with their stories entwined for the first time, they seem to be heading in opposite directions.

Whatever –  it just seemed more reasonable to begin this column with the team who touched the sky this weekend.  The fact that the weekend also included two games between teams in the top five can hardly go unmentioned.  

It was always going to be a breathless weekend, and it’s destined to stay that way with a further complete set of midweek fixtures to complete. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona will likely sigh with relief at the fixtures to come, both playing at home on Wednesday – Barcelona facing Sporting and Real Madrid entertaining Las Palmas.

It didn’t look good for the big two this weekend.  The soothsayers were out in force, and the promise that this season always held – of a show of greater democracy and a tighter struggle at the top – seemed to be reaching its culmination with Barcelona’s visit to the Calderon and Real Madrid’s trip to Villarreal.

Diego Simeone.

Diego Simeone.

Atlético and Barcelona seem to be familiar friends of late, meeting in cup competitions galore, but the truth is that Diego Simeone has had less luck against the Catalans in the domestic league.  

It was probably the only good sign for Barcelona after a torrid few weeks, and had they lost, the collapse in morale would probably have been absolute.  But cometh the hour, cometh the world’s best club side – in sickness and in health.  

Until a team topples them from the La Liga title and the Champions League, it seems reasonable to still call them that. It’s easy to get a wonky perspective on things until you see the way that Barcelona can cope with adversity.

Either side could have won it, but again it was Marc-André Ter Stegen who shored up the frailties in front of him, particularly in the first half.

However, Leo Messi likes the Calderón, a venue where he’d previously scored ten times in his career, and just to give himself an emotional send-off in the final year of the stadium’s existence he scored again, with three minutes left on the clock. And as opposed to last week against Leganes, he celebrated the goal with something like his usual smile.  

The pressure was thus on Real Madrid, as they trooped off heavily to their late-afternoon hotel siestas.  In midweek, of course, they had lost 2-1 to improving Valencia, blowing one of their games in hand.

To further disturb their afternoon thoughts, Villarreal had bounced back from their 0-4 home defeat to Roma with wins over Real Sociedad and then Roma in the return leg, and anyway, you can never relax at their ground.

Real Madrid have suffered there over the years and were thus happy to welcome back the BBC to the starting line-up but it all looked to be collapsing as Villarreal turned their first-half superiority into two second-half goals.

This topsy-turvy season looked to be changing direction yet again, with Barcelona back on top and unexpectedly resuscitated, just as the undertaker was about to hammer the final nail into the Catalan coffin.

 

Zinedine Zidane reacted by withdrawing Casemiro and throwing Isco into the fray, and the effect was almost immediate.

Gareth Bale scored for the second time since his re-appearance, Cristiano Ronaldo equalised from a dubious-looking penalty and Alvaro Morata kept up his impressive appearance-to-goals ratio by heading the winner from a scandalously good cross from Marcelo – although Villarreal could justly complain about the foul on Samu Castillejo in the build-up.

It was wonderful stuff, and a perfect example of the more competitive state of the La Liga nation this season.  

On Tuesday night it all starts up again, with Real Sociedad opening the week’s agenda at home to neighbours Eibar.  If Sociedad win – by no means a guaranteed result with Eibar on such splendid form –they would go fourth and leap-frog Atlético, who visit Deportivo on Thursday.

Such a result would re-shuffle the Champions League places and throw a further wild-card into the fray of this increasingly interesting season.

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