The rest-stop week that Phil predicted in his latest Quiniela ended up being exactly that. With nine matches already played (Getafe and Celta are due to face each other on Monday), things have not changed much in the standings: Barcelona keep their seven-point advantage over Atletico de Madrid, and most teams kept their rankings intact. However, plenty happened during the weekend. Let’s start with Barcelona’s match on Saturday, their tough visit to the tiny Eibar.
The match epitomised the Azulgrana’s season so far: another clean sheet – 15 in 24 matches, no less – that proves their outstanding defensive organization under Valverde; a lacklustre offense saved by the sparks of genius of Messi and the intensity of Suarez; and, finally, another match in which the Azulgrana keep their amazing streak of almost 80 fixtures in which the refs haven’t seen it fit to grant their opponents with a penalty kick, even though this time Sergio Busquets made evident efforts to put an end to it.
Eibar played an extremely solid match, also a good example of what their season has been. High pressure, good ball movement and plenty of offensive options to choose from. But Messi, from which Neymar could still have learned a thing or two about how to make a real impact in a match without monopolising the ball and alienating his teammates, needed only two interventions to kill Eibar. His pass to Suarez for Barcelona’s first (go to minute 2:00 of this video) was a piece of beauty.
In fact, Eibar gave up before Alba scored Barcelona’s second. The capitulation happened right after Orellana, a player with the skills required to play Champions League football and the brains to barely make it on Third Division, saw his second yellow for dissent after 66 minutes. A pity to have such an interesting contest finished in such a silly manner. Coach Mendilibar followed his player a few minutes later, as he vehemently requested a yellow for Suarez to no avail.
In Eibar, Valverde rested no players, apparently preferring to have everyone in match shape for their midweek hugely important contest against Chelsea. With the team in perfect position to win La Liga and in the Copa del Rey final, Valverde needs a couple of good performances against the London side to keep his treble hopes alive, and thus maintain the tradition of the last few Barcelona managers.
On Sunday, Atletico did his bit and defeated the abysmal Athletic de Bilbao. The team coached by Ziganda was missing a few important players, but his line-up was crying “0-0 would be fine by us, thanks” out loud. Of course, those type of line-ups rarely end up well, and that is what happened at the Wanda.
That said, it wasn’t easy for the hosts, who still haven’t found the best shape of their more creative midfielders. Koke and Saul spend more time running after the ball than thinking what to do with it, and that limits the service to Griezmann and Costa. Ziganda’s overpopulation of midfield worked well in the first half, but as his team tired, gaps showed up. The entry of Kevin Gameiro, who looks better now that the scoring pressure is not on him, did the rest. Athletic, winless in their last six matches, are still 10 points away from the relegation battle, but they do look like one of the worst La Liga side at this point. That said, it’s mid February and Simeone’s men have conceded just nine times. Remarkable.
Talking about worst, Deportivo do need to be mentioned. There’s general agreement between media and supporters alike: this is the most depressing Depor side in decades. They added more drama to their disheartening situation with a 1-0 defeat against Alaves, who, as Phil wrote, look like a new team after Abelardo took over. Well, even Munir is scoring now! Saturday’s was a quite symbolic match, showing how far the hosts have gone under their new coach – they were in relegation positions and have won five and tied one of their last six at home – and how low and lacking confidence the visitors – nine matches without a win – seem.
Real Sociedad defeated Levante fair and square, a victory that coach Eusebio celebrated like someone who’s saved his own job, and rightfully so. Sergio Canales sealed the score with a beautiful piece of skill.
Together with Eibar, still on seventh position, the feelgood story of the season is obviously Girona, ranked eighth. Yes, a subsidiary of Manchester City will always have access to some decent players, but the fact is that they’re extremely well coached and that they’re even daring to play some entertaining stuff. On Friday, they drove nuts the defensively solid Leganes and proved that playing at the Montilivi stadium has become a real challenge for most of La Liga. Girona have won their last four at home scoring 12 times in the process, with the viejo amigo Stuani, a very likeable globetrotter, leading the line.
Sevilla and Valencia also won, defeating with more difficulties than one would expect two sides in the relegation zone. Malaga and Las Palmas played well and probably deserved more: both had goals disallowed that could be very important for them at the end of the season. With 13 points and 15 goals after 24 matches, Malaga’s situation is desperate, while Las Palmas’ defensive issues keep appearing at the worst possible times.
The weekend finished with a thriller in Sevilla. A very ambitious Betis hosted Real Madrid hoping that the visitors showed some tiredness after their demanding Wednesday win against PSG. Zidane decided to stick to the 4-4-2 formation he’s used often in the last few matches, with Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio on the wings. The former provided the assists, while the latter has recovered that fresh touch he provided last season. Betis’ coach fielded his most offensive side, with a handful of very skilled peloteros, so it was always going to be fun. The 3-5 final score tells the story: plenty of chances and not very good defending. If Real Madrid go to Paris like this, they’re done.
But back to the match, Betis did very well for long stretches. Setien’s approach is commendable, as he tries to play like a big club should, only he lacks some of the players to keep possession without running stupid risks. A great example of this is Algerian international Boudebouz, able to dribble his way into alleys a few times every match. He’s as entertaining as they come, but gets his team in very difficult situations because of his naivety with the ball. Promising yongster Loren and offensive midfielder Fabian should bring plenty of happiness to Betis’ fans in the future.
When Betis scored their first, someone tweeted that Real Madrid haven’t kept a clean sheet since November, my first reaction was: “What year?”. Yes, it’s that bad. While Valverde’s Barcelona keep accumulating clean sheets with a formation that everyone knows by heart, Zidane’s team seem convinced that exchanging blows is their best way towards success, and the French manager tweaks his team to favour that type of dynamic. It’s obvious that applying that approach they will only succeed against subpar opposition.
The match brought one piece of bad news for the Madridistas: Marcelo suffered a muscular injury that could keep him out of the PSG tie. Both Valverde and Zidane ran some risks fielding most of their starters this weekend, but it’s understandable, as neither could afford a defeat. Zidane has paid the price with Marcelo’s injury. The good news is that Benzema scored, showing that his slump probably has a lot to do with the anxiety of playing at the Bernabeu, which has written him off already. I would not be surprised if he starts in Paris.
But that will take place next month, and there’s still plenty of Liga and Champions League to discuss before that. For example, two La Liga vs Premier League ties this week: Chelsea – Barcelona and Sevilla – Manchester United. Unmissable.