Well, we think it’s all over. After Saturday’s 2-1 home win over Valencia, Barcelona would have to lose four of the six remaining matches for 2nd place Atletico de Madrid to entertain any hopes of contending for the title. Having in mind that the Azulgrana have not lost in their last 39 La Liga matches – a new record in that competition –, four defeats in six seems as likely as Guardiola reacting graciously in defeat.
Valencia’s visit looked like one of the very last real tests for Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona this season, especially right after their painful and unexpected Champions League exit at the hands of Roma. Every single Barcelona player who spoke to the media before or after the Valencia match mentioned how that elimination had taken its toll psychologically in the group, and a hangover effect was predictable.
Indeed, some signs of exhaustion, frustration and lack of energy became evident among the Azulgrana during the match, which is understandable when facing the physically imposing Valencia. Marcelino’s side don’t just have a very intense squad, but also they are only playing La Liga and can recharge their batteries during the week. Pique is struggling mightily now, Messi appears to have lost his usual talent of recognising when to dribble and when to pass, and other players lack a bit of spark, but they team competed hard on Saturday and recovered from a really hard week.
The visitors did enjoy their chances, but did not take them. Rodrigo, who had scored in his last five matches, could not beat Ter Stegen in two glorious opportunities, while Suarez and Umtiti scored to put Barcelona 2-0 up. Valencia pulled one back, but never quite threaten Barcelona in the final minutes. Valverde decided once again not to rotate players, one of his trademarks this season, as well as one of the reasons that his figure, serious and focused, arises some doubts among the Barcelona faithful.
The fact is that the diminutive coach has rightened a ship that seemed bound for disaster last August, after Neymar’s escape and the defeat to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup. He’s probably burnt some of the starters, but never quite believed in his bench (and Semedo, Gomes and Dembele among others haven’t become dependable despite their chances). In addition to this, many Barcelona supporters criticise his preference for a 4-4-2 formation, but that probably has more to do with Lionel Messi than with Valverde, according to some journos close to the Argentinean star. That would be Lio’s preference, and as such, the inspiration for Argentina’s coach Sampaoli to structure his own side.
Barcelona already have their hands on the trophy, which may seem precious little for some of their supporters, but it’s indeed a huge achievement after what we’ve seen this season. Atletico have indeed overachieved, their second position consolidated with an authoritative win against Levante, a match which included a great strike by Antoine Griezmann and a second half goal by Fernando Torres. During the week, the forward had announced that he’ll leave Atletico in the summer, and the fact that he scored at the Wanda felt somewhat comforting even if you don’t quite enjoy Madrid’s white and red half. In the highs and lows of his career, Torres has always behaved impeccably, and deserves to leave the stage with a bang.
Real Madrid took advantage of Valencia’s defeat in Barcelona and got all three points and the third position after defeating Malaga. Zidane did rotate plenty of his starters, but for the Madridistas it was good to see that Isco, Carvajal, Casemiro and Vazquez look in the best shape of the season, and that Mateo Kovacic has joined the group of potential starters in his own right. In Malaga, even Karim Benzema had a couple of nice touches, while it became evident why Zidane still does not trust Theo.
Isco starred playing against his old team, and scored Real Madrid’s second free kick of the season in La Liga. The first? No, it wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo, but Marco Asensio against Valencia in the second match of the season. Powerful as Cristiano looks now, involved in the game, finding his team mates more often than ever, resting his body for the top matches, his legendary status would grow even more if he left his team mates take the free kicks every once in a while. I know he left Asensio take one against Juve, but you get my point.
Changing topics, the fight over Europa League spots is as hot as they come, although most contenders look like they’d rather finish the season right now. It’s the case of Villarreal and Sevilla, who drew at the Sanchez Pizjuan and allowed Betis to open a four-point advantage over the Yellow Submarine and five over its archrivals. Just like Phil predicted, the Beticos had won at Girona on Friday, a feat that shows how well they’re playing since Marc Bartra joined the squad – eight victories in ten matches – and how Girona has fallen since coach Machin announced that he might not be there next season.
Eusebio’s exit has indeed improved Real Sociedad’s focus, and Phil’s team won at Las Palmas on Saturday, leaving Paco Jemez’s side almost relegated. The surprise of the weekend in the relegation battle was Depor’s win in Bilbao, their first away victory since October, although we should not be surprised given Athletic’s unreliable performances this year. The match was a 3-2 thriller that saw Bilbao’s faithful go through phases of irritation, joy, hope, utter contempt for their team and eventually disappointment. That is, among other things, why we follow football, although it’s obviously a much more fulfilling experience when the joy happens at the end.
And, as luck would have it, Athletic will visit the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday, as there’s a midweek set of fixtures split from Tuesday to Thursday. Real Madrid vs Athletic is one of the classics regardless the teams’ positions in the standings, and coach Ziganda will indeed want to make an impression that could save his job for the upcoming season. Barcelona will travel to Vigo on Tuesday to meet their former assistant coach Unzue and Celta, Atletico will visit San Sebastian in one of Phil’s favourite matches of the calendar, and Valencia will host Getafe and his coach Bordalas Button.
We’ll watch closely, and I’m not referring to Bordalás transformation. Stay tuned.