“They play like this [like a small team], that’s why they’re down [in the standings]”, were the bitter words of Mr Enrique Setién, coach of Real Betis Balompié, after his team were handed their backsides by Leganes back in February. That 3-0 victory took Leganes only three points below Betis, but Setién paid no attention to that fact and went on to say that if Leganes decided to attempt a ball possession approach like his inspiring, innovative, ground-breaking Betis (the adjectives are mine), they would miserably fail.
Life comes at you fast, so this weekend Leganes starred in one of the most impressive results in LaLiga, again demolishing a team from Sevilla, and overtook Betis in the rankings. They won 3-0 at the Sanchez Pizjuan, leaving Sevilla’s challenge for the fourth Champions League spot a bit more problematic. Their top three offensive players – En-Nesyri, Braithwaite and the Real Madrid loanee Oscar Rodriguez – featured on the scoresheet and drove Sevilla nuts for most of the match, but even more impressive was how Leganes kept the home side away from their own goal for the best part of the 90 minutes. With just 39 goals conceded, Lega have the fifth best defence of the tournament, which indeed is one of the things a small team needs to take care of if they want to stay up.
In the midst of a funk that started after Sevilla defeated them in the derby, Betis have lost four of the last five and with that any chance of playing European football next season. As reported in previous articles on LigaFever, the tide had already turned against Setien, especially after a 4-0 defeat to Levante in which the players looked uninterested, painfully out of synch. The new 1-0 defeat to Eibar on Sunday could be fatal for Setien: Lo Celso wasted a penalty kick on the second half and Eibar’s keeper Dimitrovic did extremely well, but Betis looked disjointed for large spells of the match. One can’t help but think that Betis’ season went off the rails when a certain entrepreneur focused on rap-music (see above) joined the team in the winter transfer window, but my more superstitious half might be getting the best of me.
From one ball possession-crazed coach to another: Paco Jemez had to say goodbye to the Primera División for the fourth consecutive time after his Rayo lost 4-1 in Levante. It’s a bit unfair to chalk this one up to Paco, as the team seemed bound for relegation when he took over, but we’ve seen other miracles happen, and he couldn’t quite pull this one. Of course, he went down in style: not only did Rayo defeat Real Madrid last weekend, but more importantly he won the possession battle against Levante by a whopping 69%-31%. Ok, I know, that was cheap.
As a squad, this Rayo had plenty of flaws, and it would be hard to imagine anything different with such a short budget, but there’s a handful of players that deserved better and who will indeed find another LaLiga team to pay for their services soon enough. Fellow strugglers Huesca also confirmed their relegation with a brutal 6-2 home defeat at the hands of Valencia, who took no prisoners on their quest for the fourth spot. Inside the second minute Huesca were already behind, and the usually combative home side looked so rattled that Marcelino’s team decided to punish: it was 5-0 at halftime. Even though Huesca have occupied the last spot for most of the season, they haven’t played as poorly as this as far as I can remember. With one brace each, Valencia forwards Rodrigo and Santi Mina sent Huesca to the Segundona.
Now that two sides are already relegated, the question is who will occupy the third spot. The two obvious candidates are Girona and Valladolid, separated by one single point. Next week, the Catalans host Levante, only three points ahead of them, while the Vallisoletanos travel to Vallecas, where how Rayo will behave is anyone’s guess. Not only Levante, but also Villarreal and Celta sit just three points above Girona, so these last two matches could be as much fun (for the neutrals) as a real title race, if not more.
Valladolid looked like the safest bet to fall until coach Sergio decided to play the youngsters and it’s paying off. On Sunday, the unknown Waldo scored a cracker to defeat Athletic, overtake Girona and send 30k Vallisoletanos happy home for at least another week.
Indeed, Phil saw it coming in his quiniela: on Saturday, we saw a Barcelona B side visit Vigo. The hosts took advantage to get three much-needed points as their offensive duo Aspas – Gomez scored one apiece. Celta’s revival has of course been that of Iago Aspas since he came back from injury, and in the process he’s managed to bring Gomez back to life as well. It’s uncanny how good he looks with Aspas by his side and how lost and clueless he appeared during the months his striking partner spent away from the pitch.
Of course, the fact that Barcelona started the diminutive Riqui Puig and the voluminous Kevin Prince Boateng instead of Messi and Suarez should give some grounds for Girona, Valladolid et al to complain, as they didn’t get to play vs Riqui & KPB in their own matches vs the Azulgrana, but life is also luck. When the season started, this could have been a must-win match for Barcelona, or they could have faced them before a key Champions League match with one of those rotated line-ups that Messi saves with a 30-min cameo. The fact is that Celta had worked their way up in the last two months and this win kept them going, although they’re still not entirely safe. The fact that they play their last match at home vs Rayo should calm their nerves.
And now that the relegation battle is analysed, we do need to discuss Getafe. They defeated Girona with another two goals from two members of their striker trio – Molina and Angel scored, while Mata stayed silent this time. The victory takes them three points clear of Sevilla and Valencia with two matches left, which is mind-boggling. Even more interestingly, they will play Barcelona at the Camp Nou next weekend, and even though Valverde has no reason to field a B side this time – the Copa del Rey final is on the 25th of May and the Champions League one on the 1st of June – he may rest a few players after the trip to Liverpool. If Getafe leave the Camp Nou still in the fourth position, they will play the last match of the season at home vs Villarreal, and the unthinkable may happen. That said, even if they end up failing to keep that spot, a top six finish is also memorable for such a humble but competitive side.
At this point you can probably explain the title of the article: when the going gets tough, and this weekend was key in many aspects, the top strikers have to show up. We’ve already mentioned a handful of the best this season because they scored during the weekend: En-Nesyri, Aspas, Molina… And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Mariano, who shone in the convincing 3-2 win of the Real from Madrid. The reigning Champions League champions dismantled Villarreal on the road to… well, to nowhere.
Let’s be serious. It’s been a while since this season meant something to the Madridistas – and one could throw the Atleticos into the mix as well. But to the Madridistas it’s been particularly painful, especially when the lack of motivation among the players became even more apparent. Last week, Zidane stated that he does not regret having come on board at the end of the season rather than in the summer, because he’s been able to see for himself the dressing-room dynamics and the attitude of the full squad, a sentence that does not bode well for a few players that otherwise may have stayed next season. In any case, it was fun to watch a somewhat relaxed display by the hosts and the visitors, who could have ended up in a draw had Gerard Moreno’s last-minute cross been a bit more accurate. The Catalan striker also scored, and his improvement in the last six weeks of the competition has been key to Villarreal’s recovery, although the seasons of both club and player have been simply awful.
With the top three positions and the bottom two already clear, it’s time to focus on the fourth Champions League spot and the third relegated side. With three teams involved for the former and five for the latter, the next two weeks should bring some fun to the neutrals, and a bit of tragedy in the bottom section of the table. Stay tuned.