“Football isn’t math”, answered Andres Iniesta right after Barcelona defeated Alaves 2-1 on La Liga’s 21st matchday, as his interviewer asked him to compare stats of hosts and visitors in an eventful 90 minutes. His remarkable Sunday night performance, as it is usually the case with Iniesta, is also hard to describe in terms of numbers and figures, but it’s fair to say that the tiny, balding gentleman from La Mancha shone above everyone else in Philipe Coutinho’s La Liga debut.
That said, last evening Barcelona weren’t anywhere close to their best, while Alaves played in an “extraordinary way” (Alaves’ John Guidetti stated after the match); the ref could have made a few decisions differently, and some of them should have gone against Barcelona. For this scribe, more than the puzzlingly long streak without a penalty called against them — even though football isn’t math, 74 matches and counting sounds like a crazy number –, Luis Suarez’s Papal bull to behave as he wishes on the pitch takes the prize in terms of unexplainable ref-related phenomena.
The key to the match wasn’t the ref, but Valverde’s decision to sub his starting fullbacks halfway and get Alba and Sergi Roberto in. Together with Iniesta’s inspiration, they instilled Barcelona new life. Once again, the home-grown boys (or at least the ones closest to La Masia) saved the day, while Coutinho, playing on the right, had a below par match. Judging by what we saw it’s unlikely that his coach will use him in that position very often in the future.
Even though Alaves tried their best to give this La Liga title some interest, every passing week Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona makes it more evident that the tournament is over, at least in the title-run conversation.
The squad keeps winning, aided by a solid Ter Stegen and the inspiration of one or two players who take turns to support Lio Messi. And if that’s possible, the Argentinean is improving at being more and more key in matches while participating less and less in them. The match in which he will touch five balls, scoring three times and assisting twice is coming soon.
The win at the Camp Nou keeps Barcelona 11 points above Atletico de Madrid and 17 over Valencia, telling numbers that illustrate what a terrific job Valverde is doing in his first term, even if the squad hasn’t been as impressive in aesthetic terms as they were in previous years under other managers. Let’s not forget the winds of crisis that blew over Barcelona when the season started. Every weekend they compete for a win with the same conviction that other La Liga champions have shown in recent history, and when luck / opposition’s mistakes / referee decisions go your way, it’s hard for any top club to lose a La Liga title.
On Saturday, Zidane saved a real matchball in Valencia. Some may think this is an exaggeration, but 19 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and eliminated of the Copa del Rey after a huge miscalculation in his line-up against Leganes, the French manager could not afford another defeat in Valencia. A loss would have left Real Madrid in the fifth position, as Villarreal predictably took care of business vs Real Sociedad a couple of hours later. One more defeat could have been Zidane’s final match as Real Madrid coach.
The French coach, stubborn as he is, stuck to his beliefs once again, and this time it worked. A starting eleven featuring the BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) for the first time in ages played a solid first half and punished Valencia’s mistakes. The hosts’ disappointing performance was led by Martin Montoya, who offered a remarkably wide range of defensive errors — such as both penalties –, and in general made Real Madrid’s life easier.
Valencia did try to come back, and many expected them to do so after Santi Mina scored in the 60th minute. Real Madrid have been abysmal in the second halves of most matches this season, and this could have been no different. However, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric took over in the last twenty minutes, and Zidane’s team added another two goals to earn a calming win.
Again, this match was key to Zidane. In fact, at least on paper it was the last challenging contest until the Champions League tie with Paris Saint Germain in mid-February. Next in La Liga are Levante (16th) and Real Sociedad (15th), so the win in Valencia smoothes things over, giving him a couple of weeks to get ready for the French job. Of course, that is also why Zidane’s press conference before the Valencia match sounded as a desperate plea to keep his job until mid-February. A defeat at the Mestalla could have been fatal.
With Real Madrid bidding for time until Neymar visits the Santiago Bernabeu and Barcelona defeating Alaves, La Liga’s attention went to the bottom half of the table. A few weeks ago, it looked as though Malaga, Las Palmas and Alaves were bound for relegation. However, new coach Abelardo resuscitated Alaves, and that got Deportivo de La Coruña and Levante into trouble. Both were bound to meet each other in La Coruña this weekend, and the hosts managed to waste a 2-0 lead in the last ten minutes. Levante’s Ivi, with two spectacular goals, left Depor fans frustrated with their team, and something tells me that it won’t be the last time this season.
Next weekend, Depor are due to pay a visit to San Sebastian, where Phil’s team, now only six points above relegation positions, look as lost as an octopus in a parking lot (great Spanish expression). On Saturday, Real Sociedad conceded four goals in the first 34 minutes of the match, and even though Villarreal look like Cruyff’s Ajax since they won at the Santiago Bernabeu two weeks ago, the Donostiarras are much better than that.
Atleti needed a win at home and that’s what they got, although it was harder than expected against Las Palmas. Their three goals arrived in the second half, as Diego Simeone’s team finally appealed to their more basic, direct football, given that its midfield’s creativity is still missing.
On Wednesday, Leganes and Sevilla will face each other in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. The following day it will be Barcelona and Valencia at the Camp Nou. Not a bad way to kill time until next weekend, in which Liga Fever will resume regular service with this scribe’s Quiniela and Phil’s weekend review.