La Liga's new complexion at the top of the table may not last but gap is closing

Andy West 9/10/2018
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Five wins in eight: Sevilla have made a superb start to the campaign.

Well, this makes a nice change.

With eight games of the La Liga season elapsed – more than 20 per cent of the entire campaign – the top of the table has a very different and completely unexpected look.

Sevilla, for starters, are top of the pile, a point ahead of Atletico Madrid and a Barcelona team who have not won in four league games. Then come Real Madrid – scoreless in 410 minutes – level on points with Alaves and Espanyol, and just two ahead of Real Valladolid.

What’s going on? Is this a new world order based on equality and fair competition? Or is it merely a short-term blip, which will be swiftly overcome when the Big Two embark upon their customary long winning runs to pull 20 points clear of everyone else?

At this stage it’s impossible to say with any real confidence whether the problems being encountered by Barca and Madrid are long-term or fleeting, but those of us who would like to see La Liga become a more equally contested title race have reason for optimism.

Although they are only one point ahead of Madrid, it feels that Barca’s problems are less serious than their eternal rivals, if only because they have Lionel Messi and will therefore inevitably keep on totting up wins by his presence alone.

Most of the Catalan club’s dropped points in recent weeks have been down to individual mistakes in defence, with Gerard Pique especially culpable. If he returns to his usual level, results should improve.

But there are other concerns, especially the poor form shown by Luis Suarez in recent weeks (no goals in his last six games) and the squad’s lack of attacking depth if the Uruguayan doesn’t improve. Ousmane Dembele’s ongoing struggles to integrate are also a worry, while Philippe Coutinho is yet to define a clear role for himself between winger and midfielder.

Another reason to believe that Barca will continue to regularly drop points in La Liga is the clear and overwhelming priority they are placing upon the Champions League. It will be difficult to maintain the intensity and desire they showed against Tottenham at Wembley last week on a game-by-game basis in the league, and that factor plus the concerns mentioned above mean it’s unlikely we’ll see Barca reel off a ten-game winning run.

Madrid’s problems are easily identifiable and have been extremely predictable ever since the summer departure of Cristiano Ronaldo: a lack of goalscoring.

You don’t take out a player who scores 50 goals a season and fail to adequately replace him without noticing the difference, and the strange refusal of president Florentino Perez to compensate for Ronaldo’s absence by signing a goal poacher who lives for the penalty area – like Kylian Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski or Sergio Aguero – has left Los Blancos seriously short of firepower.

Real Madrid have lost three and drawn one of their last four matches.

Real Madrid have endured a tough start under Julen Lopetegui.

Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Isco and Marco Asensio are all fine players, and they should all be able chip in with 10 to 15 goals this season. But they are not going to carve out chances for themselves in tight games or show the goalscorer’s instinct to get on the end of crosses from Marcelo or Dani Carvajal and, although the current scoreless run is surely a brief aberration, we can expect to see Julen Lopetegui’s men – if he’s allowed to stay in charge – continue to struggle for goals.

All of this is great news for Atletico Madrid, who have overcome their early teething troubles to move within one point of top spot by picking up ten points from their last four league games without conceding a single goal.

There’s still room for improvement, especially in the wide midfield positions, but Diego Simeone’s men are in a very strong position to mount a major challenge for the title – unless they become sidetracked by the hugely tempting proposition of contesting the Champions League Final in their own stadium in May.

Teams like Alaves, Espanyol and Valladolid will surely fall by the wayside, and Sevilla face an enormous challenge in maintaining their current league form whilst also competing in the Europa League.

So we will probably eventually come back to the same three contenders as always – but the gap between them and the rest will be smaller than usual.

Maestro: Lionel Messi.

Maestro: Barcelona are so reliant on Lionel Messi.

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Valencia v Barcelona player ratings as Ezequiel Garay scores an 8 and Lionel Messi gets a 7

Andy West 8/10/2018
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An Argentine tops our player ratings after getting on the scoresheet as Valencia and Barcelona shared the spoils at Mestalla…but it’s not the man you might expect.

Rather than Lionel Messi (who admittedly did rescue a point with a brilliant equaliser), home team defender Ezequiel Garay was the pick of the bunch, netting the opening goal and defending excellently.

Here’s the full rundown of all 27 players.

VALENCIA

Neto 6. Little to do other than retrieve Messi’s goal from his net, when he had no chance. Made a solid second half stop from the Argentine.

Piccini 6. Hard to recall if he ever crossed the halfway line as he was forced deep to defend against Alba and Coutinho, but did that well.

Gabriel 7. Steady and sensible in the centre of defence, holding his position well.

Garay 8. Netted the opener from close range, and did very well at the back with some strong interventions, including a key late tackle on Messi.

Gaya 6. Could have conceded a penalty with a silly challenge on Suarez. Flashed a drive just wide but generally forced to play more defensively than usual.

Soler 6. Booked for fouling Alba and his main task for the night was staying in place to cut out the opposition left-back’s low crosses.

Kondogbia 7. Fizzed an early shot inches wide and made a few dynamic bursts as well as doing a good job protecting his back four.

Parejo 6. Unable to assert himself against Arthur and Busquets but didn’t become frustrated, sticking to his defensive task with discipline.

Guedes 7. A major early threat, winning the corner for the opener, but was then forced off with an injury after a challenge from Coutinho.

Batshuayi 7. Twice came close early on during a powerful start, and he worked hard throughout, dropping deep to pressure the visiting midfielders.

Gameiro 5. Made one good run down the right to set up a chance for Cheryshev but had little further impact and was replaced by Rodrigo.

REPLACEMENTS

Cheryshev 6. Early entrant down the left wing and initially struggled, but improved to have a goalbound shot blocked and curled another just over.

Rodrigo 6. Came on for the last 25 minutes, replacing Gameiro, but was left chasing the ball as Valencia dropped deep to defend.

Coquelin 6. Replaced the tiring Kondogbia for the final stages as Valencia held on for a point, and fulfilled his task competently.

BARCELONA

Ter Stegen 7. Made a couple of good early saves to prevent Valencia going two-up, and was reduced to the role of a spectator after that.

Semedo 6. Vulnerable defensively, especially against Guedes, but a bright spark coming forward without managing to penetrate the penalty box.

Pique 6. Inadvertently assisted the opener and desperately struggled early on. Improved significantly from his dodgy start but still looked unconvincing.

Vermaelen 6. Failed to cut out corner for the opener and sometimes struggled against the strength of Batshuayi, but kept his concentration.

Alba 7. Endlessly available down the left flank, playing more like a winger than a full-back, but couldn’t quite find the killer pass for Messi.

Rakitic 6. Did a steady but unspectacular job on the right of midfield, maintaining his team’s shape and giving defensive support to Semedo.

Busquets 7. Led his team’s pressing to rapidly recover possession quickly, and used the ball as sensibly as always with subtle probing.

Arthur 7. Gradually imposed order after Barca’s wretched start, helping turn the game around with his safe passing. Perhaps sometimes too conservative.

Messi 7. Rifled home a brilliant equaliser and was always the biggest threat, forcing a save with a narrow-angled shot and hitting the side-netting.

Suarez 5. Haphazard with plenty of loose touches but found a neat layoff for Messi’s leveller. Booked for dissent and walked a tightrope after that.

Coutinho 6. Busy and bright in the inside left position, forever looking to cut inside and shoot – probably too much so because he became predictable and was replaced.

REPLACEMENTS

Dembele 6. Given the final ten minutes in place of Coutinho, and tried to get into advanced positions down the left without much joy.

Rafinha 6. Replaced Arthur with two minutes of normal time remaining, but had little opportunity to make an impact.

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Arthur Melo starting to shine and other talking points from Barcelona's draw at Valencia

Andy West 8/10/2018
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Barcelona lost top spot in La Liga with a 1-1 draw with Valencia on Sunday night, dropping points for the fourth consecutive league game after Lionel Messi earned a share of the spoils with a brilliant equaliser following Ezequiel Garay’s opener.

The visiting team recovered from a terrible start, which could easily have seen Valencia double their lead, to dominate the final 75 minutes, and by the end there was only one possible winner as the hosts were continually pegged back deep inside their own half.

As we head into the international break, we look at three key stories to emerge from an enthralling contest.

A new Barca is born?

In time, this first week of October 2018 could be remembered as the birth of a new Barcelona. And the man at the centre – both literally and figuratively – of that transformation is Arthur Melo, the summer signing from Gremio who looks like rapidly becoming a fundamental part of his team’s future.

Labelling Arthur ‘the new Xavi’ is both easy and lazy due to their similar physical stature and shuffling running style, but the Brazilian’s remarkably composed and precise passing in the last couple of games has started to make the resemblance a lot more real.

Until this week, Arthur was very much a peripheral presence at his new club, only given occasional run-outs. But after seizing a starting chance with an excellent display in the midweek Champions League win at Tottenham he repeated the feat on Sunday night in Valencia, doing more than any other player to restore order to his team’s performance following a horrid start and ending up with a remarkable total of 135 completed passes – the highest total by any player in La Liga so far this season.

In the space of just two games it’s now difficult to consider how manager Ernesto Valverde can consider leaving Arthur out of his team, and the 22 year-old will surely feature heavily when Barca return from the international break for a thrilling week with games against league leaders Sevilla, Inter Milan in the Champions League and old rivals Real Madrid for the season’s first Clasico.

Pique continues to struggle

A notable feature of the season so far continued on Sunday night with another shaky performance from veteran Barca defender Gérard Pique. The long-serving centre back has been directly responsible for several opposition goals in recent weeks and failed to cover himself in glory again at Mestalla with an unconvincing display.

Firstly Pique could have done more to keep out the early corner which gave Valencia the lead, but that was a relatively forgivable lapse compared to some of his later contributions, with the hosts frequently troubling him during their fast start – one example coming when he was unable to cut out a cross from Kevin Gameiro, forcing Nelson Semedo to make a good block from Denis Cheryshev before Jose Gaya thrashed the rebound just wide.

Pique now has two full weeks to rest and recuperate following his international retirement in the wake of the World Cup, and he needs to put that time to good use to kill off the growing suggestion that he is jeopardising his position as an automatic starter for Barca. If he doesn’t improve and Samuel Umtiti makes a swift return to fitness, the question will become a serious one.

Valencia the draw specialists

Draw, draw, draw, win, draw, draw: a familiar pattern has been established in Valencia’s recent games, with Marcelino’s teams doing enough to avoid defeat but not quite enough to win.

That was certainly a fair description of their efforts against Barcelona on Sunday night, with the early hope provided by Ezequiel Garay’s second minute opener soon fading into a rearguard action as Barca fought back and took full control, forcing Valencia to spend almost the entirety of the second half camped deep inside their own half, desperately defending the edge of their penalty area.

Los Che have now drawn seven of their ten games so far this season, and that just about sums up where they are as a team. Not bad, but not particularly good either. The defensive discipline instilled by Marcelino – which restricted Barca to just a handful of half-chances despite their overwhelming dominance of possession – should serve as a solid platform, but when the action resumes after the international break they need to find a lot more going forward, because at the moment it just isn’t happening.

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