Granted, if above all things you’re a Real Madrid fan or an Atletico supporter, or even a Barcelona one, you’re probably not thinking much of this LaLiga season so far. But if you enjoy the game as much as your team or if you support any of the other 17 clubs, these first three months have been a gift from the gods. It’s not only the fact that only five points separate the top five teams, but especially that feeling of unease when Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico play and you can’t really bet the house on them because they’ve only won 21 of their 42 matches so far.
The Madridistas did get three points on Saturday, in what used to be a very tough fixture for them that eventually didn’t cause them that much trouble. Valencia did not look their tough, physical selves until the second half started, and by that time the hosts had already left aside their hesitancy of late and were able to survive the token three chances that every team visiting the Bernabeu runs into since this season started.
As much as you can say that Barcelona are Lionel Messi’s team, in the sense that you expect him to step up when it matters, or take over matches if required, it’s becoming more and more evident that Real Madrid are nobody’s team now. In that sense, even though you could not say that they were Cristiano Ronaldo’s team either in the past, because the Portuguese star needed his team mates as badly as they needed him, at least the full squad knew they only had to feed Ronaldo to win more often than not. That compensated for the lack of an absorbing, dominating player. Yes, Ramos is a very active skipper, but he’s not exactly his team’s reference for playmaking on the pitch.
Now, with Ronaldo gone, Real Madrid can play as determinedly as they did in the first half of their match against Valencia, but without Ronaldo the goals fail to appear, and no one takes over matches the way Messi does with Barcelona or Griezmann does with Atletico. Modric looks better than he did at the beginning of the season, Benzema does his thing one half every three matches, Bale takes a few shots or beats a defender and puts in a cross… but that’s just not enough volume and indeed not enough consistency for a club this size to succeed in such a long season.
On Saturday evening, only a lucky deflection after a cross by the omnipresent Carvajal gave them the lead, as their surprisingly effective high press kept finding them with the ball in scoring positions that were wasted time and again. The second half cameo by Marco Absentio only confirmed what the player himself had stated in a recent interview: There’s more experienced colleagues he defers to when the going gets tough.
All that said, another win for Solari and another clean sheet with a few impressive saves by Courtois. Atletico can’t say the same thing though, as they trailed in Girona until a marvelous first touch by Costa ended up in another own goal, in this case by Girona’s Ramalho. It’s not that the big sides are struggling to win matches, it’s that they need their opponents to score their goals for them.
It was Atleti’s seventh draw in 14 matches, a telling sign of their lukewarm start of the season. Along the lines of the opening paragraphs, this is obviously Antoine Griezmann’s team, but he’s one of a number of players who look far from their best shape in this post-World Cup season. You only see the fresh, inventive, hard to contain version of the Frenchman a few times per match, and that won’t cut it against well-organised teams such as Girona. But La Liga is so open that after all those draws, Atleti are just three points behind leaders Barcelona, which isn’t bad at all.
Out of the top three of yore, Barcelona fare the best so far. After two winless matches, the Azulgrana tasted victory again at the Camp Nou, taking advantage of a timid Villarreal, and recovered the top spot. The visitors look much better than their sorry situation in the standings: they’re still able to move the ball around with flair but lack the ability to do something productive in the final third. Barcelona can rejoice thinking, among other things, of Ousmane Dembele’s outstanding form. The kid improves his decision-making with every passing match, which allows him to show his impressive physical condition ten, twelve times every 90 minutes. Boy, is he fast. On Sunday, he drove Villarreal’s Pedraza, a fast fullback in his own right, completely nuts with his dribbling and his speed.
More good news for the Azulgrana: the usually conservative Valverde is introducing Aleña bit by bit on the line-up, and the canterano could forge another memorable partnership with Lionel Messi. At some point this season it looked as though Messi could only found Alba and Suarez in space, but the addition of new options in Dembele, Malcom and Aleña make this Barcelona a terrifying team at the counter. The Argentinean’s pass to Aleña for Barcelona’s second was phenomenal, but the kid’s attitude during the full play also deserves mention.
But to this humble scribe, the name of the season so far is Alaves. Fourth in the standings, they contained Sevilla and maintained their impressive unbeaten running streak at home, that goes back to the previous season. This weekend, coach Abelardo completed 38 matches, or one full season, at the reins of the club. Since he took over, Alaves – Alaves! – are the fourth best team in Spain, behind, you guessed it, Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid. Important point: when Abelardo joined the squad from Vitoria, they were bottom of the table. With no major investments and a very similar team to that struggling squad, what he’s done with Alaves is simply unbelievable.
Indeed, the club is managed in a very innovative way, true to the heritage of their owners, a management team that took the humble basketball club of the city to unprecedented heights both in the Spanish league and in European competitions. They’ve used a few pages of the manual they used in their basketball years, especially those aimed at getting the stadium full and incentivizing fans to root and sing all match. It’s working. No other pitch in Spain iss nowadays as much fun as Mendi, as they called Mendizorroza.
Can Alaves keep this up? Probably not, but it’s lasted a year and counting. Tell that to Espanyol, already struggling to keep up with the leaders because of their short squad, while Sevilla should be able to challenge for the title if the top three of yore keep making mistakes every couple of weeks.
That was the title fight, but let’s discuss more important matters. The two teams with the worse-looking shirts in LaLiga had different luck this weekend. Rayo won at home against Eibar, which is kind of a surprise because the visitors had trounced Real Madrid just a week ago. However, Eibar travel badly, and could not feel at home in Vallecas, even though is the Primera División stadium that most resembles the narrow Ipurua.
Similarly terrible in their away kit, Real Sociedad deserved more against a tired, uninventive Betis, but last season’s free scoring side of Eusebio has become Garitano’s goal-shy one. This was their fifth scoreless match in their last eight, and the gaffer needs to think of some alternative to his current offensive options if he wants to finish the season in the top half of the table. The city of Donosti won’t accept less.
This evening, Athletic de Bilbao – in relegation spots – needs to get a result in Levante, which sounds doubtful. Could this be the end of the Berizzo era? It may well be. Stay tuned.