Carlos Tevez and Massimiliano Allegri look ahead to the visit of Real Madrid tonight.
Alexis Sanchez tormented Hull as Arsenal stepped up their drive for their highest finish in the Barclays Premier League for 10 years.
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The Chile international – who had scored in both of his previous games against the Tigers this season – was almost unplayable in a first-half blitz as the Gunners ripped apart a Hull side desperate for points to keep out of the relegation zone.
Sanchez scored twice in the first half, either side of Aaron Ramsey’s deflected strike before Steve Bruce’s men stemmed the flow with a header from Stephen Quinn in the second half.
The possession stats alone made uncomfortable reading for the Tigers, but for the first half-hour Hull had been happy to keep it tight and feed off any scraps, and certainly the visitors had been kept at arm’s length with only an inadvertent Tom Huddlestone back-flick towards his own keeper threatening a goal.
Arsenal, however, began to out some snap into their passing, and one exchange saw Sanchez skip inside and pull the trigger from 20 yards, but Steve Harper managed to parry.
That was only putting off the inevitable and when Sanchez was chopped down by Jake Livermore in the 28th minute he took sweet revenge, smashing the free-kick home with the aid of a flick off Michael Dawson’s head.
Five minutes after the opening goal, Santi Cazorla’s stunning long pass picked out Ramsey, who turned and fired past Harper with aid of a heavy deflection off Robbie Brady’s leg.
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Some breathtaking passing saw Mesut Ozil set up for a chance but his shot lacked venom, then the impressive Cazorla played in Sanchez who tried to lift the ball over Harper but the keeper stood his ground.
Sanchez was not to be denied a second, however, and in first-half stoppage time another Arsenal move saw the Hull players like statues while Ramsey played in Sanchez who this time took the ball around 40-year-old Harper and scored into an empty net.
Bruce’s response was to send on Irish midfielder David Meyler for the ineffective Jake Livermore and the Tigers were immediately a tougher proposition.
It was Meyler who played a significant part as Hull pulled one back in the 56th minute. He clattered into Francis Coquelin and while Arsenal protested Ahmed Elmohamady played in a super cross that Quinn met with a stooping header than bounced past Ospina.
Hull could really have been back in the game when McShane sent a bullet header over the crossbar but that let-off was all Arsenal needed, and the Gunners were further buoyed when Jack Wilshere made his first return to action since an ankle operation in November, coming on for Ramsey.
Almost immediately he embarked on a mazy run past three Hull defenders, ended abruptly by Michael Dawson: welcome back to the Premier League.
Arsenal ended the match in total control with Hector Bellerin, Wilshere, Sanchez and Theo Walcott passing up chances to deliver the mercy blow.
I really can’t remember the season, but I think it was back in the 1980s. It was a cup match between Grimsby and Chesterfield. Grimsby were winning 1-0, with about 5 minutes to go. As Chesterfield were attacking, a Grimsby defender lunged in and sent the ball hurtling up into the stand towards me. In those days, ball-boys were a rare sight in the lower divisions, and even if there was a smattering of them, they didn’t have bags of balls at the ready to throw tactically to a home defender, or delay returning to a visiting attacker. As such, the Grimsby defenders relaxed momentarily, thinking that it would take a few seconds for the ball to be retrieved from up in the stands. But as the ball whizzed towards me, a young buck leapt up in front for me and with exquisite timing, punched the ball two-fisted straight back down towards the pitch. As his mates applauded, the ball fizzed back towards the pitch, straight into the arms of a Chesterfield forward, jogging down to the touchline. With the Grimsby defenders caught by the sudden re-appearance of the ball, the player took the throw quickly, the winger crossed, and bang, goal. Chesterfield won the replay, went on an excellent cup run, and used the momentum the next season to gain promotion to the old 3rd Division.
I used to think about this incident incessantly. Sad but true, I almost wrote a book about it. It seemed a mice-and-men moment, where the best laid plans are simply undone by a random occurrence – one out of anyone’s control. Had the young guy not been standing in that exact position, had he not been capable of the goalkeeper’s punch that he exhibited, then Chesterfield’s history – indeed Grimsby’s, would have been different. Better or worse, but different. You can’t plan for this sort of stuff. You can only try your best, and hope that if random occurrences befall you, they’ll incline in your favour. Probably no-one remembers the incident apart from me and the guy who punched the ball. But it changed two teams’ fates, maybe even people’s lives. It was chaos theory in a nutshell – a weird moment.
Which is a rather circuitous way of introducing this week’s theme, sparked by Real Madrid’s rather unlikely 3-2 win at Sevilla on Saturday afternoon. This was the weekend when things were scheduled to change, when Barcelona were supposed to disappear over the horizon. Well – they almost did, waiting until the 42nd minute before opening the scoring at bottom club Cordoba’s Estadio Nuevo Arcangel (New Archangel Stadium) , but after that the archangel stopped singing and looked on in horror as the pumped-up visitors scored another seven before the final whistle. It was Cordoba’s worst-ever defeat, and it sent them mathematically back to the Second Division, from whence they came last season. If you’re going to go down, you might as well go down in style. Spookily, of Barcelona’s three 0-8 away wins in their history, the first one in 1959 was in Las Palmas, and a certain (Spanish) Luis Suárez scored a hat-trick. Zoom forward 56 years, and another Luis Suárez manages a hat-trick in a 0-8 victory, albeit this time he’s Uruguayan.
However, back to the topic. Real Madrid were obliged to face Sevilla in the Sanchez Pizjuan two hours after the Cordoba result. Sevilla hadn’t lost there since February 2014 (to Barcelona) and were on the shirt-tails a record home run. The league trophy was fluttering azulgrana colours in the Saturday evening breeze, and Sevilla were looking good up to the half-hour mark when Sergio Ramos clashed fortuitously with the excellent Grzegorz Krychowiak, obliging the Polish defensive midfielder to stagger off and receive treatment on the touchline for a bloodied nose. Unai Emery, in one of those moments which may be remembered less than the eventual winner of this season’s league title, decided that Krychowiak might be able to go back on, instead of putting on the more-than-capable Vicente Iborra in his place.
Fatefully, he dilly-dallied –although his desire to keep him on the pitch showed just how important the Pole has been to Sevilla this season (he’s played in every single game). By the time he came back on, semi-fractured nose and all, Real Madrid were 2-0 to the good. Talk about taking full advantage. If you watch both of those Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals, they come from crosses that have been built up under a lack of pressure from Sevilla’s full-backs, pulled out of position and exposed by the lack of Krychowiak’s presence in the middle. Carlos Bacca pulled one back before half-time, after ex-Sevillista Sergio Ramos had fouled Alex Vidal, but Ronaldo scored his 29th hat-trick for Real Madrid and they eventually ran out 3-2 winners. That’s 53 goals for the Portuguese power-plant in all competitions, 42 of them in the league. Despite Leo Messi scoring twice at Cordoba (and generously handing a penalty to Neymar), Ronaldo remains ahead in his obsessive quest to win this season’s ‘Pichichi’ (top scorer) trophy, but you can’t help but think that it was a bit of chaos theory that intervened, a distant fluttering of the butterfly’s wings that eventually caused the hurricane – or the shift of air that made Krychowiak incline his head too close to the back of Sergio Ramos’s.
Cristiano Ronaldo this Season: • 53 Goals • 21 Assists • 49 Apps • 18 MOTM pic.twitter.com/WUDNDJrnHF
— Cristiano Ronaldo (@TeamCRonaldo) May 4, 2015
So now, the only thing apparently standing between Barcelona and the title is their penultimate game in the Calderón, but you might be forgiven for thinking that some accident might happen, some random event or some unexpected occurrence will intervene to make things more interesting – assuming, of course, that we accept the Calderón premise itself. Atlético are running out of steam, and Real’s game at home to Valencia next week is hardly a cake-walk. Also of course, there is the inflationary-deflationary effect of the Champions League, which rears its head back into prominence this week. Real Madrid travel to Juventus, euphoric after securing the Italian title this weekend. They may be Pogba-less for the first leg, but the idea that Juve are the soft touch of the four semi-finalists seems slightly askew. Everything is relative (where Bayern Munich are concerned) but it’s hardly an easy call. There could be fall-out next weekend from the events in midweek. Barcelona have a relatively easy-looking game at home to Real Sociedad, but who knows what will happen on Wednesday night, and anyway, Sociedad are showing recent signs of improvement.
At the weekend I actually saw most of La Liga’s action on Sky, after a quick weekend visit to the lowlands of Scotland to see Stirling University’s B team play Lothian Thistle in a do-or-die contest in the East of Scotland Premier. It was 28 degrees (Celsius) when I left Spain on Friday morning, but during the game on Saturday afternoon under the bleak grey skies of a Scottish spring, it was officially six degrees, but the wind-chill factor made it seem as though the new ice-age were about to begin. Lothian Thistle, needing a win to take the league title, are a side of some recent pedigree, having seen John Collins, Gary Caldwell and Real Sociedad’s Alfred Finboggason pass though their ranks, and were facing the university side, for whom several of the first-teamers had been drafted in (their Lowland League season has finished) to help their feeder team avoid relegation.
My son was playing as the defensive midfielder, and I wanted to see how we would fare against experienced and aggressively motivated players. It’s interesting to watch football at this level, to see why the majority haven’t quite made it, and also to look out for those who still might. But true to the weekend’s form, it was the random factor which eventually swung the game Lothian’s way, after the university had played all the decent football. A quick turn by a lively Lothian winger, a sudden cross and a defender unable to get his swinging arm out of the way – a dumb penalty but a penalty nonetheless. The same winger takes it, the ball hits the post and bobbles ridiculously on the uneven surface away from a defender’s panic-stricken boot and into the path of the winger, who bangs it back into the net. Lothian go on to win 4-2, but they don’t really deserve it. History will not record the favourable bounce of the ball, just as it will probably forget Krychowiak’s fatal 10-minute absence from the action. Real Madrid, like Lothian and Chesterfield before them, were of course capable of taking advantage of the circumstances – a trait that characterises winners and raises them above the level of outrageous fortune, but sometimes you can spend a lifetime wondering what might have been.
With only three games left to play in La Liga, the title might still go to the wire, but if it does, it might be a sudden gust of wind in the Calderón that determines its destination.