It was as an interesting weekend in La Liga, and not simply because Valencia were playing Barcelona. One of the side-shows at the fair was Villarreal v Sevilla, important for its Europa League implications next season perhaps, but also because at this stage of the campaign a possible defeat for Barcelona was destined to give hope to the winners elsewhere. Sevilla’s thermo-nuclear comeback against Liverpool in midweek, after trailing 0-3 at the break, put one in mind of Liverpool’s own similar feat in the Champions League in 2005 in Istanbul, except that was in a final , of course. Still, Sevilla could have been forgiven for not wanting to subsequently travel to in-form Villarreal, unbeaten in six games, but that was how the fixture list cookie crumbled. 2-0 down after 53 minutes, they must have been dreaming of home and hot-water bottles, only to conjure up the spirit of the ‘remontada’ (come-back) yet again and score three times to win the game. Maybe Villarreal were tired after their long trip to Astana in midweek, but the result leaves them four points shy of 5th-placed Sevilla now, and hanging onto their Europa League berth only because Real Sociedad surprisingly failed to defeat bottom side Las Palmas at home (2-2).
In another of the significant side-shows, a defeat for Las Palmas would allegedly have seen the sacking of ex-Benitez lackey Pako Ayestaran, a thoroughbred Basque who was once Sporting Director of Real Sociedad for a brief period in 2009, and who is the cousin of one of my mates. Just thought you’d like to know that. Las Palmas had lost eight games on the trot, which rather suggests Ayestaran should have been handed his cards before now, but his boys pulled out the stops and could actually have won the game, the excellent ex-Chelsea chap Remy hitting the post in the dying-swan seconds. Las Palmas can’t defend, as their record suggests, but they have quality in the middle with the excellent Jonathan Viera (who scored the equaliser) and move the ball around like a side that should be higher in the table.
I saw the game live, but then nipped home to the local bar to watch the Valencia v Barcelona game, only to encounter three gentlemen from Las Palmas in their 60th anniversary yellow shirts, guzzling gin & tonics and plates of chips with some gusto (see picture below). When I enquired after the reason for their shirts, I received the enthusiastic explanation that the club was founded in 1949, which meant that the 60th anniversary was in 2009, a season which I was forced to conclude was of no particular significance, but hey – they were nice shirts, if a tad bright. I decided not to press the matter further, but they looked very happy, particularly with their first point gained in twenty-seven. Perhaps the gentlemen belonged to the 2009 nostalgia club. Funny game football.
The game on the telly above their heads was of course the big one at the Mestalla, with most of the non-Barça supporting contingent in the country praying for anything but an away win, since such an event would have practically secured the Catalans the title before the last leaves of autumn had fallen. This would have been bad news for promoters, advertisers, journalists – practically everyone except Barcelona basically, and the conspiracy theorists will be mixing their potions this coming week with the goal disallowed in the first half, when Messi’s shot was fumbled by Neto and crossed the line with some clarity.
In fact, in the International Space Station currently orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 250 miles, the six-member crew all saw it with some clarity too, but referee Iglesias Villanueva and his assistant waved play on. Villanueva is not Barça’s favourite ref, since he practically sealed their doom (and thus Real Madrid’s title) when he turned down two decent penalty appeals during their game against Villarreal last season. Shades also of last January, when the wonderfully incompetent ref Hernandez Hernandez failed to see that a Barcelona shot (by Suarez I think) had crossed the line against Betis, in the Villamarín.
Did Villanueva’s myopia influence the game? Very probably, yes – given Barça’s dominance at that point. Quite apart from the ghost goal, the first half was a curious affair, if only in the sense that it was a non-competition. Valencia’s tactics were hard to understand, and their imprecision played into the hands of the visitors, who played some magnificent stuff, as of old. It was slightly depressing because the home side, so unexpectedly rejuvenated this season, had been expected to confirm their candidature for the title by showing up, at the very least. Was it all a flash in the pan, a historic run of wins but with no real substance behind?
As if piqued by their own negativity, Valencia came off the blocks in the second half with a much higher line, with Parejo starting to get the ball into Guedes, and Gaya and Montoya finally getting up the flanks. It was Gaya, taking a reverse ball from Guedes, who crossed the ball low for Rodrigo to score in the 60th minute – starting a dynamic that you felt might just be too much for Barça, with Messi oddly imprecise and Iniesta and Rakitic suddenly disconnected. However, Messi never has a complete off-day, and his pass to Alba in the 82nd minute, providing the equaliser, was astonishing in its accuracy – played just in front of Alba’s run, allowing just enough distance for him to sprint beyond Montoya and volley home. Watch it again, and you see that Messi is so aware of Alba’s speed that he knows the pass will enable his team-mate to beat Montoya to it, even though the latter starts with an advantage. Extraordinary stuff.
Anyway, Atlético’s 0-5 win at Levante thus took on more significance, providing some light at the end of the proverbial for them, especially given the fact that Griezmann had a happier week – scoring a wonder goal against Roma in midweek and getting two more against Levante to silence his critics, if you’ll excuse the cliché. It really doesn’t look like crisis-time at Atlético. The win means that they’re still undefeated after 13 games, never achieved before in their entire history, plus the fact that they’re unbeaten in 19 away games, the equivalent of half a season. The last game they lost away was at Villarreal, in December 2016. Their moaning white-shirted neighbours, one place below them, continue to stutter after another unconvincing 3-2 win at home to Málaga, but at least they won, enabling them to still dream that a win in the forthcoming clásico could cut the gap to a rather more accessible five points.
They’ll have to smarten up their act before that game, however, and next week’s visit to Athletic, despite the Basque’s poor form, is never a comfy one. But at least, the famous phrase ‘hay liga’ (the league’s still on) was pronounced by most and sundry at the end of Sunday night, tinged with a certain tone of relief.