Plenty of narratives could have become the centre of this article in an eventful weekend of Spanish football, but I wisely chose to start writing after the end of the last match. Barcelona were due at Betis in the Sunday evening Partidazo, and after Setien’s team win in the Camp Nou a few months ago, it was easy to expect a serious, determined perhaps vengeful performance by Messi & co. If Barcelona needed some extra motivation, on Saturday Atletico had lost in Bilbao, which meant that a victory of the Azulgrana in Sevilla could also give them a 10-point advantage with 10 matches left.
With all that context, what we saw Messi do against Betis was an unforgettable mixture between consistency and fantasy, which are the reasons why Barcelona have dominated the domestic tournaments in Spain since the diminutive Argentinean came of age. With a fantastic hat trick – an even better one than the one he scored against Sevilla – Messi handed his team another LaLiga title and left the pitch among the applause of the Betis’ faithful, who had been singing his name since he scored his third goal, a memorable chip over the goalie that no one could have expected.
Yes, you can throw in his face his struggles with Argentina, or Real Madrid’s continental success as proof of his limitations. However, what he’s done with Barcelona in Spain is simply phenomenal. Every time one of the contenders suffers an upset and Barcelona plays later, you can count on Messi to take matters into his own hands and get the win. And more often than not, the way in which he does that involves a handful of memorable plays that are at this point too many to be remembered without the help of technology. It’s that duo of consistency and fantasy what has made of LaLiga his tournament, and that is why only a ridiculously deep team can contend for the title with Messi and whatever supporting cast Barcelona decide to provide him with.
On Sunday, Messi scored a magnificent free kick, a lethal finish after an outstanding pass from Suarez and the aforementioned delightful chip. He also hit the post, assisted Suarez and Alba a few times and looked in general as focused as you would wish if he were playing for your team. Betis started off well, but their errors when building plays from the back were too numerous, and Barcelona, or perhaps I should say Messi, knew how to make the most of them.
To the outrage of the Barcelona purists, Valverde started with a 4-4-2, as Arthur, Busquets, Rakitic and Vidal occupied midfield. Looked like a decent maneuver to congest the middle of the pitch while Betis struggled to get past the middle of the park, but generated a few occasions when managed to beat Barcelona’s midfield line.
It’s worth mentioning that Messi grabbed the match by the neck with the help of Suarez, who has suddenly morphed into one of those strikers who can’t stop missing sitters but suddenly dribble half of the opposition’s team and unleashes a screamer. This wasn’t the Suarez most of us knew, but it’s hard to categorise him differently at this point of his career.
Now not even the Barcelona vs Atletico of the 6th of April should concern the Catalans, especially because Atletico, after recovering their swagger with five consecutive matches without conceding, have suddenly destroyed their own season with two brutal, scoreless losses in which they have seen the opposition score five times. Of course, if their elimination of the Champions League was already frustrating, the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo was the executor made things a lot worse to swallow.
If the Barcelona purists enjoy criticizing Valverde, up to now we had rarely hear negative buzz about Simeone coming from Atletico fans. It’s obvious that the club is where it is because Diego is their coach, but at times one does wonder what would happen now if, with such a squad, the club would invest a part of the brutal salary of Simeone in a couple of decent reinforcements. The idea to start Costa, Griezmann and Morata did not work out, perhaps because Costa looks almost as out of shape as Isco and Marcelo. Seeing profe Ortega and Antonio Pintus on opposing benches trying to get these players fit, one can conclude that it’s the player, and not the fitness coach, the one able to get into shape and spend most of the times there, regardless of their coaches.
If Messi’s demolition of Betis and Atletico’s hara-kiri in Bilbao deserved some headlines, what should a Real Madrid socio say about Zinedine Zidane coming back home to the Santiago Bernabeu? It was a wonderful afternoon during which we got to see a throwback performance by Gareth Bale, and plenty of decent attacking moves by Marcelo and Isco. That said, the current squad is what it is, meaning that these are the same players which Zizou did not want to coach last season, only nine months older and, in some cases, a few kilos heavier.
Of course, Zidane only joined for the next 10 painful matches to decide who leaves and to have a hand on the signings, something he never had in his previous tenure as Real Madrid manager. For his first match, he turned to his tried and tested, so Navas, Isco, Asensio and Marcelo came back to the line-up with the expected effect: the flair appeared here and there, but the intensity Zidane demanded so often during his two and a half years on the bench was not as easy to see as he would have liked.
That said, we saw probably Bale’s and Asensio’s best matches of the season by far, and decent contributions from Marcelo, especially on offense, and Navas. If the next few matches become a casting, we could see some fun football. In any case, the French manager probably has his list already printed and ready to send to Florentino. We’ll know more in a few weeks.
Outside of the leading trio, it’s worth mentioning that Getafe and Alaves are still fighting for the fourth spot. The former drew level in Valencia – the hosts’ 16th draw of the season – in a match that, due to their heated Copa del Rey tie, has become one of the most underrated rivalries in LaLiga. Alaves won in Huesca coming back from 1-0 down, as forward Calleri, struggling to score for most of the season, finally broke the spell and thanked Abelardo’s trust with a brace.
Sevilla, who had fired Pablo Machin after their Europa League disaster, used their football director and former coach Joaquín Caparrós to get them off their funk, and the Sevillistas won 1-0 at Espanyol’s home in Cornella. It was a quite soft penalty, but that’s becoming the norm in Spain, with or without VAR. In an entertaining match at the Stadium of the Pottery, Villarreal won again and left the relegation zone for the first time in a while. Rayo played another decent match, but his manager’s fate seems now clear.
Let’s finish this weekend recap with the most surreal rumour of the season: apparently, Antoine Griezmann feels he made the wrong decision on top of the wrong video, and has now reached out to Barcelona to see if there’s still the chance to move there. The half news was received with outrage by Barcelona fans and denied by their football director, as Atletico supporters hid their head in their hands dreading the prospect of another summer listening to his star say how wonderful it would be to play at the Camp Nou. Would you not swap him for Coutinho and some cash? I’ll leave with that idea…