Who would have thought, dear readers – who would have thought that we would be looking at Sunday November 26th as the decisive date on the La Liga calendar? And just in case you’re not with me yet, at 20.45 on that same evening, Valencia entertain Barcelona in a game that may have more significance than the clásico that follows it a month later, on Saturday December 23 in the Bernabéu – the day before Santa starts checking that his sleigh is airworthy. Can anything have more significance than the clásico? It would appear to be the case this season, especially after the events of this weekend.
I’m suspicious of those articles with the phoney framework ‘Six things we learned from this weekend’s games’, but to half-borrow from the conceit, let’s look at three from the weekend just gone. We’ll have to start in the Willy-Wanda, where the Madrid derby was played for the first time on the turf of Atlético’s impressive new stadium. Apparently, this was the shortest journey that Real Madrid have ever taken in order to play an away game – 5 kilometres precisely, from the training ground at Valdebebas to the Wanda, but the conservation of energy seemed to have little effect, and despite playing slightly better than of late, the 0-0 draw was the result that neither RM nor their hosts desired. As Eduardo remarked in his earlier piece on the game, Barcelona were the obvious winners, having already defeated Leganés a little further to the south a couple of hours before. Below is a picture of what neither player was doing on Saturday.
Is there anything to add? Well, it wasn’t a great game, but that was predictable, given the importance of not losing. A point means that they’re both now ten behind Barça, but at the very least they’re still level-pegging on 24 points. It’s a cold kind of comfort to take from the game, but it’s something. Furthermore Atlético, despite their obvious constipation, remain undefeated in the league, with a mere six goals conceded. It’s at the other end of the intestinal tract that they’re blocked, with Griezmann again booed off when replaced in the 76th minute. Griezmann-gate is becoming an interesting issue. In one sense you have to feel sorry for him, because Simeone basically sent him out as a defender on Saturday evening, tracking him back rather than forward. Griezmann is good at this, and his work-rate has improved since his Sociedad days, but the fans are used to seeing him score in some abundance previously, and are therefore unlikely (and unqualified perhaps ) to applaud him off the pitch for his sterling defensive work. Were they booing Griezmann or Simeone’s deployment of him? Answers on a postcard please. The Frenchman wants away, and knows that he is on the hit-lists of all the planet’s biggest clubs, but maybe he’s not to blame, and has learned all he can from Simeone.
Then again, when at Real Sociedad, Griezmann was never a paragon of virtue, flirting with several clubs publicly before he was finally tempted away to the Calderón, and although he is largely remembered with fondness in San Sebastián, there were times when his behaviour had the locals mortally offended, conservative as they are up here in the Basque Country. But they always knew he would go. Now the Atlético fans, with a more big-club perspective than Real Sociedad, are basically uncomfortable with the idea that he wants to move on. They no longer accept their status as a ‘selling club’. Griezmann’s attitude thus implies that they are not as big as they think, that the new image and edifice that has been built up, coupled with their greater economic security, all counts for nothing. Antoine has taken what he wants, has achieved super-star status, and is no longer as committed or interested. That’s one interpretation anyway. It might be wrong.
The other thing we learned (or didn’t) is Real Madrid’s forward line. Gotta catch ‘em all? Valencia, then Barça? Well, how about putting Alvaro Morata up front? Oh dear, I forgot. He’s at Chelsea, scoring loads of goals. Why is he at Chelsea? Because Zidane is a nice intelligent guy with a great haircut, but he’s as stubborn as a Capricorn goat. He brings to mind the acronym given to Margaret Thatcher in her day, dubbed ‘TINA’ by her opponents. ‘There is no alternative’. Tina Zidane.
Look – it’s not that Benzema and Ronaldo are rubbish or anything, but rather that they’ve been around for too long. The relationship is not what it was, and anyway, opposing sides have worked out finally how to separate them, how to null their effectiveness, especially now that they are both older. Did you see Juanfran beat Ronaldo in that sprint on Saturday? Yep – it’s the beginning of the end. I actually saw CR7’s first goal in the Bernabéu, a penalty against LDU Quito in the ‘Peace Cup’ in the summer of 2009 – so there. He’s scored quite a few since, but Benzema was also playing in that game, his second appearance in the stadium, and he looked a useful addition to the squad, no more no less. Raúl was still around in those days, but would find himself surplus to requirements at the end of that season, largely due to the arrival of the terrible twins. Armed with a press pass, I actually spoke to Benzema after that game, in French, and he didn’t appear to understand a word I said. I’ll swear that I didn’t mention the phrase ‘hunting chat’. Whatever – my point is that it all seems an awfully long time ago. This is the actual photo below of my question. Sorry about the quality.
The BBC thing’s just gone a bit stale, and suddenly, despite the club’s riches, there are no obvious alternatives, with Bale so often sidelined and Asensio not really a striker. Barcelona have lost Neymar, but Madrid have lost the plot. Valencia, meanwhile, continue to grow in the absence of any significant opposition. To them has fallen the responsibility of keeping the league-show alive, and they’re responding with gusto. Their 0-2 win at Espanyol, their 8th consecutive victory no less, was by no means easily achieved, with the Catalans much better this season, despite their lack of goals (9). They look as though they’ll come good, as soon as they put a run together, and they hit the post twice before Valencia finally scored, an event due as much to the latter’s superior fitness and drive than to anything else. The scary thing for those just below them is that Valencia started the game with Zaza, Guedes and Soler on the bench. The latter two entered the fray in the second half and had a direct effect on the result, but this sort of win, achieved without the main guys on the pitch and against an ambitious Espanyol side, shows that they are title contenders. At the very least, it shows that they have the mettle to stay up there.
Next week’s game with Barça is therefore of nuclear proportions. Should Valencia win, they would be a point shy of Barcelona and very much in the frame. Should Barcelona win it, then you would probably be saying ciao to the league as a competition this season, unless some bubonic catastrophe were to befall the Camp Nou or Javier Tebas decides to expel them from the competition for not being Spanish enough. And you have to fancy Valencia’s chances, with Barça travelling to Juventus on the Wednesday night for what will be a tough game. They would have to lose heavily to the Italians to be in any danger of losing their top spot in the Champions League group, but they’re unlikely to send out a reserve side.
Looking below the Madrid clubs, Sevilla are only two points behind, but their performances hardly suggest that they’re really throne pretenders this season, certainly less so than the side one point below them, Villarreal. They drew in Bilbao on Sunday night in an excellent game, and it is they who look the best equipped to make the move up into the Champions League places, by no means default territory for the two Madrid sides this season.
So, basically……next week is a big ‘un. Liga Fever will be there, if not in body then certainly in spirit. Until then…..