If you’re somewhat familiar with betting on Spanish football, you probably know that if you want to make some cash on a top LaLiga team not winning its weekend match, you must wait until the do or die part of the Champions League starts. Key players are rested, the general mindset of the team is not quite focused on what the weekend match means, even the fans are not totally considering the importance of the three points at stake… until it’s too late.
This weekend, Barcelona and Atletico flirted with a negative result on Saturday. At the Pitch New – which indeed looks rather old— coach Ernesto Valverde rested Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Nelson Semedo – yes, I rate him over Sergi Roberto, especially if the opposing team have any decent offensive player on their left flank.
Leo Messi was nominally on the pitch, but the Argentinean took things easy as well, and Barcelona’s general demeanour was that of a team that knows they can’t err against Olympique Lyon on Tuesday, as opposed to thinking of how to beat Valladolid. With the exception of Aleña, they missed a gear for most of the match and moved the ball around without much interest. Valladolid, an extremely limited squad in terms of talent, looked quite comfortable for most of the 90 minutes, and when Barcelona finally turned it on, their keeper Masip, a former Masia player, responded impressively well. It took a very well placed shot from the spot to beat Masip, and it was Messi who did it, although he missed another penalty kick a few minutes later, Masip not only guessing it right like he did the first one, but getting to the ball in time too.
The match had very few things for Barcelona to build on, especially after two consecutive draws at home and when the squad needed some momentum. Kevin Prince Boateng started, but was quite disappointing, and it was Pique, who so far this season has played every minute in LaLiga, who saved Barcelona’s bacon in both offence – earning an extremely soft penalty – and defence – with a couple of outstanding interventions. He’s probably Barcelona’s most in-shape player, and was characteristically direct in his post-match interview: “We did not play well, the best thing was the win”. Coutinho looked lost again, and even Suarez’s cameo felt quite out of place, as the Uruguayan, after a good sequence of matches, looked like the lost man of the beginning of the season.
Atletico, who had to cross a couple of Madrid neighbourhoods to get to Vallecas, did not do much better. Alvaro Morata started alongside Antoine Griezmann, and at some point Diego Simeone tested something I thought I would not see in a regular LaLiga match: both players joined by Diego Costa to form a quite intimidating offensive trio, but one that looks mightily unbalanced in defensive terms for a team coached by Simeone.
The trick worked and Atletico scored with their own tridente on the pitch, although with tons of luck: Morata was offside and took part in the play, and Griezmann’s shot had to take a deflection to go in.
If Barcelona and Atletico ended up avoiding an upset, Real Madrid failed miserably. Six consecutive wins in LaLiga and great results in the first legs of their Copa del Rey and Champions League rounds obviously relaxed the Madridistas, victims of the effort of the trip to Amsterdam and the questionable personnel decisions of Solari. Vinicius started on the bench after 12 consecutive matches in the initial lineup, and the team missed his ability to drive any fullback nuts. Asensio got the nod and played another anonymous match, in a noon kickoff that also saw terrible performances by Toni Kroos, Dani Ceballos and an absolutely awful cameo by Gareth Bale.
Solari decided to play with very two very offensive fullbacks – Marcelo and Odriozola – to compensate for the absence of Vinicius and Modric, probably expecting to generate a consistent threat from both sides. What in fact happened, especially in the second half, is that Girona kept punishing Real Madrid’s flanks as Marcelo and Odriozola failed to cover the section of the pitch usually assigned to fullbacks. Marcelo’s poor run of form has prompted this brutal piece in Marca, and I guess after what we saw yesterday the fullback needs a kick in the balls to wake up.
Having taken the lead through Casemiro, it’s shocking how the home side lost the plot in the second half. At some point they looked like a groggy boxer, Girona getting extra men in every ball and making Ceballos, Kroos and Casemiro look like amateurs in the middle of the park. The visitors created plenty of scoring opportunities, and did not level earlier probably because their confidence, after 12 matches without a win, was at minimum levels. Solari did not understand what was wrong – midfield rather than forwards – and his substitutions only made Girona more comfortable. Their memorable win takes some heat off coach Eusebio and leaves Real Madrid nine points behind Barcelona. By the way, this was Phil’s lock of the weekend in his quiniela… with the Madridistas winning, of course.
Elsewhere, Villarreal came back to life with a fantastic win over Sevilla in which Carlos Bacca, back to the starting lineup, left us a fantastic piece of skill and vision second only to Guti’s in terms of memorable LaLiga backheel assists. Sevilla had one of those off nights that have become too frequent for them to keep that Champions League spot for much longer. Phil’s Real Sociedad did well at Anoeta and now feel they have a chance to get to Europa League spots, while Valencia drew for the 14th time in 24 matches and stopped their good streak of victories.
Betis and Alavés drew level in a match that will leave no one content, as the hosts expected to get to Europa League positions and the visitors had the faltering Sevilla and their fourth position in sight. Today, Huesca and Athletic close the weekend, as it becomes clearer and clearer that the Bilbaínos chose the better Garitano brother.
And in midweek, Barcelona and Atletico are back in the Champions League. Prepare wads of cash for the next weekend, as the Azulgrana will visit Sevilla and the Rojiblancos will host Villarreal, two teams with plenty of talent who must do better in this final third of the season.