I was reminded of the Seekers’ song from my childhood when Messi came onto the pitch with Barcelona 0-1 down to Athletic on Saturday: ‘I could search the whole world over/Until my life is through/But I know I’ll never find another you’. We were talking about the wee man last week and once again he hit the headlines by pulling his team back from their third brink in three games by shaking up the general movement and getting the vital assist for Munir’s equaliser. Well actually it was four games on the brink, because they were mighty fortunate to win at Real Sociedad before this little negative ‘run’ began, but hey – crisis what crisis? They’re still top of the league.
Ed Alvarez toasted in his weekend predictions ‘To more upsets’ – and whether he was asking for them mainly to occur to the Catalans or not, he got ‘em. Barça hadn’t gone three league games without a win since 2016, and Real Madrid (who drew 0-0 in the derby in the Bernabéu) had to go back to 2011 under Mourinho to find a two-game run without scoring, amazingly enough.
So at the very least, it’s been an interesting week in which Sevilla, more than any other team, have poked the fire and stirred some flames with their credentials. Since slipping up at home to Getafe they’ve won three league games on the trot and beaten Standard Liege in the Europa Cup (5-1). They slaughtered Real Madrid 3-0 in midweek, provoking the first rumbles of discontent at Planet Lopetegui, and then still managed to win a tricky one at Eibar on Saturday to the tune of 1-3, with a bit of collapsed terracing to contend with as well. They’ll be looking on with interest at next weekend’s fixtures, in which Real Madrid travel to revelation-team Alavés (despite their narrow defeat on Sunday at Levante) and Barcelona visit the Mestalla in Valencia for the late showdown on Sunday night. Sevilla host stuttering Celta and will be looking to further pressure the ‘big three’, even though it’s early doors.
Returning to all things Messi, Ernesto Valverde has been coming in for a bit of stick lately regarding his rotation policy, or at least the part that says that he can rotate, but not rest the Argentine. Barça travel to London to play Tottenham on Wednesday, a tricky game to say the least, and so the presence of the golden oldies Messi and Busquets on the bench against Athletic would have been perfectly acceptable to all and sundry had they won, but as the Seekers were implying in their own golden oldie, there’s no-one to replace Messi anymore – or at least no system that can readjust to compensate for his absence, although Coutinho had a go. Xavi and Iniesta are no longer there, and Neymar is strutting his casual stuff up in France. Then again, Barcelona did create enough chances to win, but the post and Unai Simon denied them. The problem seems to be – if indeed there is a problem – that the defence is suddenly less assured. Piqué appears to be the focus for discontent, but that’s what happens when you expose an ageing centre-back to nippy forwards like Iñaki Wiliams, without the Busquets shield. The Seekers could also have based their song on Busi. Sergio Ramos similarly looks more comfy when Casemiro is in front of him. It’s the law of modern football. Show me your defensive pivot, and I’ll understand your team.
Rakitic and Vidal are not quite those sort of players though they both have their virtues. Vidal played well against Athletic and was unfortunate to be subbed, but he’s not a pivot, and neither is Rakitic. Their games depend more on the width of movement they are permitted, and the flexibility they are allowed when if comes to supporting the attack – as does that of Sergi Roberto, who suffers when he is asked to remain in a more limited expanse of territory. Semedo and Lenglet do not quite convince as yet, and so Valencia must be fairly interested in next Sunday’s game, especially since they showed signs of life by winning their first game 0-1 in Anoeta.
They didn’t exactly set the house on fire, but they did enough to win, with the excellent Neto saving a penalty from Willian José in the 2nd half. I was there, of course, and witnessed the usual Valencia mystery. It rarely matters whether they’re top or bottom, they always seem to have a decent squad. No team ever considers a visit to the Mestalla an easy one, in the same way as they generally fear a trip to San Mamés. Kondogbia is excellent, Gameiro is quick and intelligent (if inconsistent), Rodrigo looks like becoming the top striker in Spain, Cheryshev, for all his antics at Madrid, looks a class act and that’s without mentioning Parejo, Soler and Guedes. Oh, and Batshuayi is half-decent too. If they get their backsides into gear, Barcelona could be facing a real ‘crisis’ by the end of next weekend too, after a tricky trip to London. Valencia’s trip to Manchester, also on Tuesday (to play United) is a little bit more comfortable, the way that Mou’s men are performing at the moment. It should be an interesting one, and good preparation for next Sunday.
We shouldn’t dismiss Atlético, of course. The draw at their neighbour’s house was the 6th consecutive season they have avoided defeat there, after so many years before when their inability to get a result became something of a La Liga joke. They play Betis next weekend in what could be a cracker too, after entertaining Bruges at home on Wednesday. Busy times in the capital but you feel that they should emerge unscathed. Interestingly, in the game between the two current European champions, it was the two keepers who kept things in balance, further fuelling their reputations as the top two on the globe. One is tempted to think that the two chances which fell to Griezmann and Costa might have been goals in other circumstances, with no disrespect to Keylor Navas. Oblak just continues to be Oblak, of course, and José María Giménez is another rock, as if Godín weren’t enough by himself. They breed ‘em tough in Uruguay. It’s all those excellent steaks. Maybe that’s Gareth Bale’s problem.
In another Liga Fever insight exclusive, you may recall Ed Alvarez writing recently that all would be well until that inevitable moment when Bale started playing with his groin, as it were. He started doing that sometime around the 40th minute, and failed to emerge after the break. There could be trouble at the mill, especially given the fact that he’d been looking as fresh as a prize Welsh leek in previous weeks.
Elsewhere, Valladolid surprised everyone and possibly themselves by beating Villarreal at Villarreal, the goal scored somewhat apologetically by Leo Suárez, on loan from the home side, of course. That’s one point from four home games for the yellow submarines, so perhaps it wasn’t a surprise after all, since the newly-promoted side haven’t lost away yet…so I’ll take back what I said. There were lots of eyes on Alavés too, whose three-match winning streak came to an end with their home draw to Getafe in midweek and then the defeat to Levante. Had they won the latter, they might still have gone top, which would have been nice.
Is this an outbreak of democracy, after all these barren years of oligarchy malarkey? As the Spanish say, ‘Don’t sell the bear’s skin before you’ve shot it’. They could be right. La Liga has a worrying tendency to restore the accepted order as quickly as possible, just in case the sponsors should be getting a little jittery. We shall see, but at least for now, with three points separating the top seven sides, it’s looking a little more interesting than it often does, even at this early-bud stage. Let’s see how the week pans out.