Against all odds, the first weekend at home with my newborn led me to watch more football than any other weekend in recent memory. Rather than demanding food with all the might of his lungs or sleeping with no rhyme or reason 24*7, as one would expect, my beloved Lucas prefers to keep us awake at night, but during the day he eats and sleeps regularly. Given that it’s not advisable to leave the house with such a small creature in the current weather, I ended up watching more than half of this LaLiga set of fixtures with the tiny 10-day old on my lap, which is a pretty cool thing to do if you ask me.
But let’s start the weekend’s summary with two missed penalties. The first one took place on Saturday afternoon in Valencia, as home striker Rodrigo hit the ball horribly from the spot and Valladolid’s keeper not only parried away Rodrigo’s shot, but also reacted quickly to deny Santi Mina in the ensuing play. When the ref blew the final whistle, Valencia drew level for the eleventh time of the season, and their gloriously fickle local fans bid farewell to the team with a mighty session of boos.
Later on that same day, in the close-by Villarreal stadium, Ekambi took his penalty so badly that the ball missed the goal by a good meter. His face before taking the shot made many of us think that the pressure on his shoulders was too high, and having watched Rodrigo a few hours earlier, somehow it wasn’t surprising that Villarreal ended up missing that last-minute penalty and thus lost the match to Getafe. Valencia and Villarreal are living parallel lives at the moment.
Both teams have been similarly disappointing so far. They did well last season but haven’t been able to perform in Spain and Europe at the same time, and currently flirt with relegation. In the case of Villarreal, they’re in the 19th spot, while Valencia, apparently safe in the 10th, are in fact only four points away from the trouble zone.
The parallelisms between their seasons increased this weekend. Not only did they both miss penalties that could have given them some very badly needed points, but they also played much better than the final score suggests. They squandered chance after chance, as their big-name forwards can’t score to save their lives. Right before the ref awarded Villarreal with that penalty, the Yellow Submarine had hit Getafe’s posts three times in less than thirty seconds. Valencia, always under pressure from their own fans, also saw Rodrigo and Santi Mina waste glorious opportunities to score.
And while some of those misses indeed seemed bad luck, especially when the chances started to mount, there is no excuse for those two missed penalties. You could hardly take them in a poorer way, with less conviction. If both coaches can’t change that losing victims’ mindset in their respective teams, the season will become extremely long for the two usually entertaining sides from the Valencian region. A piece of data is extremely telling: Valencia are not only the worst scoring outfit in LaLiga, but also the one with the lowest ratio of goals / shots on goal (a terrible 7%).
The weekend, once again, brought us reason to speak about Messi. In fact, it was Messi himself rather than the weekend, as he scored his 400th goal in La Liga, to the tremendous tune of 0.95 goals per match. Barcelona entertained Eibar on Sunday afternoon, and the match did not disappoint: the visitors set up their camp with the line in midfield and starred in an interesting first half, but as the match went on and Eibar got tired, Barcelona started to find openings which are usually fatal when Suarez, Coutinho and Messi enjoy 40 meters of space to drive your defence crazy. With Suarez in phenomenal form, Valverde’s side enjoyed 15 glorious second-half minutes in which the ball travelled fast and the players moved even faster.
But probably the best news for Barcelona has to do with their defence: their back four had looked hesitant at times earlier this season, but now have conceded just once in their last six. Eibar can be proud of their performance, but here’s another team who desperately needs a scorer. They always play a lot better than their final scores suggest… with the exception of that 3-0 win vs Real Madrid, indeed.
And speaking of Real Madrid, it seems fair to say that coach Santiago Solari looks determined to shake up the dressing room. He did have eight absentees for the team’s trip to Sevilla, where possession-junkies Betis awaited. But he also left plenty of talent on the bench, including Marcelo and of course Isco, who seems bound to leave the team sooner rather than later. Never a Isquista myself, I must admit that all this has me feeling perplexed: it’s not as if talent like Isco’s abounds in top level football, and especially in this season’s struggling Real Madrid. If he did not start for this match, nor joined the team as minutes went by, surely he must be headed out.
The whole Real Madrid season has become an indictment of the powers-that-be who “planned” how this year should unfold. When Benzema broke his pinkie last evening, Mariano awaited on the bench, but was forgotten in favour of Cristo – yes, the kid’s name is Christ in Spanish. In case you don’t remember, Mariano would have left his previous club on a free transfer at the end of this season, but Real Madrid decided to pay 20Mn to secure his services during a few months, just to leave him on the bench. It’s hard, perhaps impossible to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, but the issues with Real Madrid’s squad come from two summers ago, and what is happening now is just the result of poor planning and even poorer decisions.
That said, no one can accuse Solari of lack of guts. You must be either raving mad or feel extremely confident to start a Real Madrid line-up with five defenders, or to play a bunch of kids from Castilla with the season on the line. Solari did both on Sunday night, and the experiment appeared to work during a decent first half. The second, saved miraculously by Dani Ceballos, who answered the profanity of his former supporters with a cold-blooded last-second dagger, became a terrible 45 minutes of football by Real Madrid, as poor as one can remember. So yes, Solari has guts and trusts the youth teams, but his Real Madrid plays terrible football. The season now depends on Vinnie and Brahim, who would have thought…..
In Bilbao, a Ronaldesque (the Nazario one) Iñaki Williams killed a numb, disappointing Sevilla with two outstanding solo goals. In Vallekas, Raul de Tomas reminded Real Madrid that they had a pretty good striker they probably did not remember with a hat-trick against Celta that keeps Rayo’s hopes of staying up more than alive. And finally, Atletico defeated Levante with such a dodgy penalty that Diego Simeone himself admitted that it made no sense. The most shocking thing… wait, perhaps it’s not that shocking… Well, in any case, the VAR judges saw the play and agreed with the penalty awarded by the ref, which is preposterous. It wasn’t a particularly good weekend in VAR terms, as Ekambi’s missed penalty in Villarreal was also a mistake: the Getafe defender got to the ball first and was probably guilty of a high sole at the most. When a system designed to correct mistakes doesn’t, it’s probably time to review it, paradoxical as a VAR review may sound. Let’s review the reviewer, please.
The weekend also left us a bunch of golazos: William’s second for Athletic, Ángel’s winner for Getafe in Villarreal and Valladolid’s equalizer in Valencia, a free kick by Alcaraz, were truly impressive, as well as Barcelona’s first two. The Azulgranas keep their five-point advantage over Atletico, in what seems the only possible title race. Leaving aside the limited competition for European football spots, what should be fun this season is the relegation battle. There’s only five points between the 8th and the 18th spot, so a poor month can get any of those sides into trouble.
LaLiga has reached its mid-season point, so it’s time for a review. Watch this space.